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.
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