MATTER OF PRIVILEGE
Freedom of Speech
Mr GUYULA (Nulunbuy): Madam Speaker, I move that the committee of privileges inquire into and report to the Assembly on any limitations of a member’s freedom of speech in this Assembly with specific regard to the operation of the Standing Order 31. I move that the power of the proceedings officer to expunge words considered highly disorderly from the parliamentary records as occurred by a ruling of the Deputy Speaker and confirmed by the Speaker in relation to words I spoke in my adjournment speech on the evening of 16 February 2017.
I move my motion today at the earliest opportunity following the sensor of my adjournment speech on the final sitting day of February. In research I have since learnt these matters are best dealt with at the time of the event by dissent; however, at that time I did not hear the Deputy Speaker’s ruling on them, then left before the Speaker confirmed the decision. Nevertheless, as a new member of the parliament, I would not have known to move dissent of the motion at the time. I would also have been shocked if I had heard the ruling. Indeed, I was shocked or rather perplexed when I learned of the ruling.
On the following day when my staff quizzed me about the matter, comically I confirmed to my staff member that he needed to follow up the Hansard and provide the speech to them, presumably to ensure the right spellings of the children’s names I had listed. Obviously, some confusion followed that directive of mine.
The Deputy Speaker had censored the names in my speech with this ruling:
Thank you, Member for Nhulunbuy, the names of the children will not be recorded in the Hansard as they are in the care of the department.
At the end of the evening, the ruling was confirmed by the Speaker.
It never crossed my mind that something like this could have happened. I have taken serious consideration of my action and resolve to do so because of my responsibility to the vulnerable in my electorate. I was aware of the Care and Protection of Children Act, section 301, which makes it illegal to publish material that may identify a child in the CEO’s care, but I was also aware that this restriction does not apply to a member speaking in the parliamentary Chamber, with the limitations of the Chamber.
I was aware of my right to freedom of speech. I understand this right as being a special privilege granted to me through Westminister tradition so the parliament could not be overcome by the King or Queen. In the modern view of members, freedom of speech is a pillar of democracy granted to ensure a last line of defence for citizens over the state. To me, a member’s privilege is to protect the vulnerable - when government supposedly exists to serve them - to build them up and give them strength instead of oppress them.
Before I made my speech on 16 February, I had gained details of the cases of these children from witnesses and had consulted with the affected families. On top of this, I am an expert on custom, culture and world view of the people group affected, the Yirawirung. I am a clan leader in custom and law of these people. Moreover, I am an authority of Ŋärra’ Rom, which is the institution of nationhood of our people. This institution is responsible for overseeing our law that protects the weak and vulnerable.
My point is that in considering the use of my discretion, as a member of this Chamber, I was likely the best informed about the children’s situation. My discretion of the member argued with the authority of Westminster tradition and the tradition of my own people. I had decided that these children had been wrongly removed from their parents and family by the state, resulting in injustice and unjustifiable trauma.
In the face of this I wanted to do something about it. I did not act maliciously. I did not use words that were disorderly or offensive. Instead I honoured the children of my people. I left information for them that would make them feel loved, respected and wanted. I acted to try to give them hope in the future when they might only feel alone.
Unfortunately this plan relied upon the Hansard record. The failure I am trying to highlight is that because of this ruling the Department has been allowed to traumatise these children. This is not debatable while there is no opportunity for redress, no opportunity for healing and justice.
Yet another way under this ruling the secretary invoked by the Care and Protection of Children Act has become a tool of injustice rather than a tool of safety. My speech was balanced, instead of the system protecting itself. My speech was the system correcting itself. This is what a member’s freedom of speech is for. It is not outside influence like the courts, or like the government or Territory Families that should get in the way of us doing our job and correcting the systems when it has strayed.
Outside powers should not get in the way of this Chamber providing hope for our people. This is why I find it difficult to accept a ruling to censor a member’s freedom of speech justified by the Care and Protection of Children Act. It is not a justification and by itself our powers and the privileges determine that.
Secondly I cannot understand how I in my actions on 16 February breached the limitations of the Chamber. I understand that Standing Order 31 has been described as a limitation in this instance. I fail to see by what interpretation the use of Standing Order 31 is feasible. This I believe requires attention by the Parliamentary Privileges Committee.
Standing Order 31 protects the respect of the judiciary together with the Parliaments of Australia and their members. My speech was not addressing any of these institutions or authorities.
Finally I strongly believe this instance of the Speaker’s discretion provides the Chamber with a good opportunity to review one of its foundational parameters of operation: freedom of speech. As I have alluded a member’s freedom of speech is a pillar of the Westminster system style democracy.
Every shave removed from this might well lead us to failure. There have been a few incidents in this Chamber in the past where words have been censored from the Hansard. Those examples are potentially justifiable in terms of the protection and safety of individuals and protecting the privacy of individuals. They were not challenged; however, the precedents we know of were also arguable malicious in each instance.
This is in contrast to my own circumstances. My speech cannot be argued to be malicious. Furthermore, today I have provided the Chamber with the rationale that I acted on the interests of the individual’s safety and in the reasonable interests of my electorate. I cannot argue that I acted to protect the individual’s privacy; however, this is overcome by the likelihood that privacy only existed since the day of parting.
I understand that on face value this matter may seem clear cut; however, as one digs deeper and gains perspective I believe this is an issue of importance to each member. Each of our privileges is at stake. This is not selfish; this is a call to remember where we come from and who we are for the purpose we are here.
Members, when your freedom of speech is at stake, the rights of your electorates to be properly represented are also threatened. The right to protect your people is removed. I ask all members to consider this situation seriously and pass this motion.
I commend my motion to the Chamber.
See Hansard for remainder of the debate. Motion was voted down by the Labor Majority.