Commonwealth leaders discuss parliamentary privilege

Last updated 05:00 25/01/2014

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Moving the protection of parliamentary privilege out of convention and into law was one of the major issues discussed at a gathering of more than 60 Commonwealth leaders.

Hosted by Speaker David Carter, the Conference of Speakers and Presiding Officers saw more than 60 parliamentary speakers and delegates in the capital this week share practices and knowledge from their own political systems. 

Australian Speaker Bronwyn Bishop shared her wisdom regarding the implementation of laws around the protection of parliamentary privilege. 

"Here in New Zealand you’re looking at having legislation for privilege. We already have it in existence in Australia," she said. 

"I pointed out that it took 17 years from go-to-whoa to get a right-of-reply into the House of Representatives."

MPs in New Zealand are decidedly more agreed over the proposed laws, which seek to beef up their protection against being sued for defamation.

The Parliamentary Privileges Bill, which seeks to clarify "for the avoidance of doubt'' the nature of some aspects of parliamentary privilege in New Zealand, was introduced last year.

It followed court rulings which MPs believed undermined their protection.

The first was the case of Attorney-General & Gow v Leigh, in which the Supreme Court found statements by an official to minister Trevor Mallard, when he was preparing to answer an oral question, were not part of parliamentary proceedings.

That meant they could be brought into defamation proceedings because they were not protected by Parliament’s absolute privilege.

The legislation is also likely to protect MPs from being sued for defamation when they make an oral or written statement, outside of Parliament, refusing to resile from what they have said in the House.

Carter said it was a good example of how the New Zealand and Australian Parliaments were similar and yet different.

Discussions over whether or not a Parliamentary Speaker should be impartial also provided insight, Carter said. 

In New Zealand, the Speaker is considered impartial, and while still a member of a political party he or she generally disengages from its politics. 

Carter said the conference reinforced the importance of the Speaker remaining ‘‘impartial and fair at all times’’ 

"One of the interesting challenges that any Speaker has when he’s been involved in the parliamentary system is to move out of the role of being a political activist, and into the role of being a fair and impartial Speaker,'' he said.

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However, Bishop said she remained active within her political party. 

"Under our tradition the government provides the speaker. In the chair - impartiality, but otherwise I have constituents to serve,'' she said.

The next conference will be hosted by Malaysia’s speaker of the house Pandikar Amin Mulia, in 2016. 

- Fairfax Media

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