A dangerous move
According to this ABC report, the Rann government in SA is trying to scrap parliamentary privilege against defamation actions, as a direct response to a political crisis in which the former Speaker, Peter Lewis, who resigned yesterday, has made accusations that a number of prominent people, including MPs, are pedophiles. Although it appears that Mr Lewis named names, and that publication of these names would be protected by parliamentary privilege, the reports I’ve seen don’t give names.
In defence of the legislation, Rann is quoted as saying that there’s nothing to fear from making statements if they’re true, but this claim is itself false. His objection to Lewis’ statements is not that they are provably false, but that they are unsubstantiated. The fact that MPs can make allegations that are true, or at least plausibly grounded in evidence, but not provable in court is the essence of Parliamentary privilege.
There are some changes I’d like to see made in defamation law as it relates to MPs. First, and conversely with Parliamentary privilege, I’d like a strengthening of the principle that criticism of MPs by members of the public should be protected free speech under the Constitution. Second, I’d like an expansion of the existing rights of reply (I’ve never used this mechanism in response to criticisms of me in Parliament, but I think Clive Hamilton has). Finally, the Parliament itself, through the Speaker, ought to be more rigorous in calling MPs to account for abuses of privilege.
One thing is for sure. Making radical changes to fundamental institutions in the heat of the moment is a very bad idea.
Update 6/4/5 The Bill has been withdrawn
fn1. This Advertiser report isn’t exactly consistent, suggesting Lewis stated “that a serving MP had been involved in homosexual acts in the south parklands.” This might, I suppose, include violations of age-of-consent laws.
fn2. Given the dominance of the party system, I’m less sure about this last item.