The protection of parliamentary privilege

Last updated 08:10 09/03/2012

One of the privileges members of Parliament have is they they can't be sued for defamation for statements they make in Parliament. This privilege has existed for hundreds of years and is generally regarded as desirable as it allows MPs to expose wrongdoing without being silenced by injunctions and lawsuits.

However, there is a great responsibility on MPs to get their facts right, and to apologise when they get it wrong. They can defame people under the protection of parliamentary privilege, and their victims have no legal recourse.

Winston Peters has a long history of making allegations under parliamentary privilege, and having the vast bulk of the allegations turn out to be without substance. I had hoped that these days were behind us, but this week we have seen two serious allegations made by Peters under parliamentary privilege.

For two weeks Peters has been asking Local Government Minister Nick Smith about financial management issues at the Auckland Council. I was puzzled as to why he was asking questions to the minister (who has no operational responsibility for the council), and not just writing to the mayor (or the Auditor-General) if he has issues of concern. The answer, it seems, is because of the protection of parliamentary privilege. On Tuesday he asked in Parliament:

Has the minister received, had communicated to him, or requested any reports that Deloitte, a supplier of services to the Auckland Council and its auditor, contrary to section 254 of the 2002 Act has provided free overseas travel and gifts to the council's chief financial officer, commonly called Deloitte McKenzie?

This is a serious allegation, posing as a question. It implies that the Auckland Council CFO is receiving significant free gifts frm a supplier.  Mr McKenzie has been reported as denying the allegation:

"I have never had any travel paid for me by Deloitte," Mr McKenzie said last night.

It is a simple matter of fact to establish who paid for a trip, and I presume Auckland Council records show they they paid for the trip. If this is the case, then Mr McKenzie should receive an apology.

The other allegation by Mr Peters was on Wednesday in the General Debate. He names a number of people who he alleges have done wrong against Taranaki company Yarrows.

Now I have no idea whether or not there is substance in this case. That will become apparent in the next few days. But the concern is that once again parliamentary privilege is being used in a way which is grossly unfair to those who are named by Mr Peters.

Perhaps one of Mr Peters' caucus colleagues could ask their leader whether or not he has any proof of his allegation that Mr McKenzie received free overseas travel from Deloitte. And if he is unable to provide them with the proof, implore him not to turn the House of Representatives into a Star Chamber.

David Farrar is a centre-right blogger affiliated to the National Party. His disclosure statement is here.

32 comments
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dan   #1   08:36 am Mar 09 2012

Isn't that why people vote for Winnie? for the drama?

I'm all for him being there to 'shake up the order' or whatever he tries to do, but you've got to admit when you're wrong which is where he always fails.

m0rph3us   #2   10:15 am Mar 09 2012

This is exactly why Peters is bad news. He is a populist headline-grabber of minimal substance. He would like to think of himself as some sort of people's hero, but he's more like the court jester.

Richard   #3   10:37 am Mar 09 2012

Immmm, are we serious here David or is this article a subtle way of ribbing Peters because he is by no means the only parliamentarian to use this procedure.

Did you complain when John Key said the credit agencies would have downgraded NZ more were National not the government? That was in Parliament too. And it wasn't true.

What is said in Parliament, whether under privilege or not, has to be allowed. There is recourse available through the Speaker if it turns out a statement was wholly fiction / without merit. At this point we don't know in Yarrows' case so should wait.

Field Marshall   #4   11:24 am Mar 09 2012

All resonable efforts to obtain information should be made by MP's BEFORE they can use 'privilage'.

Peter's -like David asks- should at first be writing to the Auckland Mayor.Then if that answer is unsatisfactory, the Auditor-General, and if that is unsatisfactory, then finally useing 'privilage'.

Peter's is clearly GRANDSTANDING, and ABUSING privilage, as a reguest by The HONORABLE Winston Peters MP, would CERTAINLY elicit a reasonable response to his questions, if made to the Mayor of Auckland or the Auditor-General.

David Farrar   #5   11:45 am Mar 09 2012

Richard #3. Many MPs will sometimes get a fact wrong in the House. But what I am talking about is allegations that would be defamatory if repeated outside the House, about someone who is not an MP.

All I am asking is that Peters, if he has no proof against Mr McKenzie, apologise to him or at least retract the allegation.

cm   #6   12:11 pm Mar 09 2012

Parliamentary privileged is important to ensure that parliament can raise and discuss issues without being shut down by defamation charges etc.

That was fine when parliament was generally held in relative privacy and it was not abused.

However in this day and age it needs to be moderated. Parliamentary activity gets broadcasted on TV and radio making it a public forum. The rules need to be changed to ensure that the MPs moderate their behaviour.

robbie   #7   12:38 pm Mar 09 2012

Sadly,this man is now a clown,and those who onced believed him,will now question every statement.Pity,because he was once a champion of the people,now like a toothless old bog,he only has a sad whimper

Alan_Wilkinson   #8   01:41 pm Mar 09 2012

As I've said before, the best antidote to misinformation is more information. The House needs to have process whereby maligned victims of Parliamentary privilege can reply and refute the allegations. If they are indeed false that will leave Peters publicly exposed for what he is.

john.bt   #9   03:29 pm Mar 09 2012

I am still amazed that enough people voted for this lying fool for him to get back into parliament. We want our $158,000 back Winnie. Plus interest.

PS   #10   04:13 pm Mar 09 2012

I agree with you Alan W. The abuse of privilege has brought it into disrepute. Peters is not the only one to use privilege in this way. He is just the worst offender,and now being recognised for what he is (like the infamous ferry comments he made years ago)-very shallow.

FM for once we are on the same side here. The only problem with your suggestion (writing to the Mayor or whoever first) is that it is altogether far too reasonable an approach for a populist politician like Peters to take.

David-your suggestion about members of his caucus asking the hard questions of Peters will never work (unfortunately). They are far too scared of and submissive to Peters. NZ First-who was that other loony in that party advocating the arming of the populace with AK 47s.


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