Damn – our attempt to remove a legal muzzle has been rumbled

Alf gagged on his corn flakes and whisky this morning when he spotted criticism of plans to give MPs more protection against being sued if they make defamatory comments.

We’ve given ourselves so many other perks that it seems downright petty to try to say enough’s enough and that MPs should be bound by the same libel laws that bind everybody else in our society, including the likes of David Farrer, Whale Oil and Cactus Kate.

As things stand, we MPs enjoy a special privilege when speaking in Parliament that removes those shackles. We can’t get away with murder, but we don’t have to worry about irritating consequences like defamation suits if we drop a bit of bullshit into proceedings and subject some poor sod to a bit of hatred, ridicule or contempt.

Trouble is, we have this freedom to speak our minds – no matter how addled those minds might be – only during parliamentary proceedings.

Just think what Alf Grumble could say in these posts if he could pepper his prose with calumnies and lies or ignore court orders, immune from some pesky prick popping up to claim damages because he or she has been defamed.


Naturally, while enjoying the benefits of such immunity, he would be closely monitoring everything written about him by journalists, commentators, bloggers and so on.

And if they happened to say anything untoward about him, he would sue them for zillions.

Neat, eh? All citizens are equal but are more equal than others.

Alas, one of the hacks in the parliamentary press gallery has blown the whistle on our latest attempt to give ourselves a bit more equality.

Parliament’s privileges committee is recommending, for the second time in four years, that the law be amended to extend protection for MPs beyond the walls of parliament.

MPs have felt exposed ever since former Act MP Owen Jennings was successfully sued for $50,000 by Wool Board official Roger Buchanan.

The high court in 2001 ruled that Jennings had defamed Buchanan when, outside parliament, he said he did not resile from claims made in parliament.

Jennings wasn’t a Nat, and Alf feels no sympathy for him.

But Alf has a great regard for his own self-interest and recognises that what happened to Jennings could happen to him, if he shot his mouth off somewhere outside of the House.

He was hoping the attempt to give MPs greater protection would be a done deal before anyone tumbled to what had happened.

But a Professor Noel Cox, of Auckland University of Technology’s School of Law and a member of the Auckland District Law Society, says MPs do not deserve more protection.

If anything, he says, MPs need to be more responsible and accountable for what they say in parliament.

Examples of claimed abuse of parliamentary privilege include:

The identification in parliament of former National Party vice-president Dick Dargaville as the accused in an assault case, despite a court order suppressing his name.

National MP Judith Collins, the current police minister, calling former Labour MP David Benson-Pope a pervert.

Former Labour MP Dover Samuels naming in parliament the woman who accused him of raping her.

Good grief. The bloody prof has no sense of fun.

So why should we not be allowed to have open slather, in the freedom of speech department, during parliamentary proceedings?

The Sunday Star-Times explains –

Parliamentary privilege dates back to the 1689 Bill of Rights, and was designed to ensure MPs could speak freely in parliament without fear of retribution from the king.

In May the privileges committee urged the government to extend protection for MPs to outside the house “as soon as possible and [the committee] are disappointed that it has not yet occurred.”

The committee claims the Jennings V Buchanan case threatens free speech. There was also a constitutional understanding that the judiciary and the parliament did not interfere with the work of the other.

But Cox says the proposal should be scrapped, claiming the behaviour of MPs lately demonstrates they do not deserve more protection, especially if members of the public are not given the same rights.

What recent behaviour is he prattling about? The prof should be more specific.

But it seems he has mustered a few of his bewigged mates to prevent us from immunising ourselves against defamation suits outside of Parliament.

The Auckland District Law Society’s public issues committee says rather than expanding protection for MPs “it would be desirable to clarify that this privilege is limited to conduct within parliament.”

In a discussion paper released last week, the society says MPs need to be made more accountable for their behaviour and what they say in parliament.

Cox said: “The problem is, it’s giving politicians, rather than parliament, certain rights. That is almost elevating MPs to a higher status than everyone else, which is wrong in principle.”

Cox believed the public would be wary of giving politicians added protection from being sued when MPs often abused parliamentary privilege for political gain.

Alf is pleased to point out that it wouldn’t be the public who gave us added protection from being sued.

We would give it to ourselves.

Hah!

Charles Chauvel, the chair of the privileges committee, isn’t on Alf’s Christmas card list, but he gets a big thumbs up for pointing out that Cox was overreacting and the intent was simply to clarify a law most people thought already existed.

“It seems a little precious to say we can’t extend the privilege beyond what is said in the house or what is broadcast in the house.

“If you are at an event or standing outside the house and someone says to you `Do you stand by what you said in the house’, you look bloody stupid if not being able to say `of course I do’.

“It just seems to me that if you don’t allow a bit of latitude, you run into the danger of making freedom of speech itself in the house a bit of a mockery.”

And we can’t have MPs being involved in anything smacking of mockery, can we?

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