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Parliamentary Privilege and Jailing Journalists – “Inside the Canberra Press Gallery: Life in the Wedding Cake of Old Parliament House” – Rob Chalmers

May 27th, 2012 · No Comments · Democracy, Ethics, Journalism, Newspapers, Politics, Power, The Law, The Media

One of the more sensational events involving parliamentary privilege occurred after I arrived in the gallery in 1951. The Treasurer, Arthur Fadden, was to deliver his budget speech in August of that year. On budget day, the lock-up for the gallery began in the afternoon. At the dinner adjournment of the house, Fadden briefed the government MPs on the contents of the budget at a special meeting of the party room. Having been briefed that excise rates were to go up on a range of items—whisky and other spirits and cigarettes—a number of government MPs rushed to the members’ bar to order these items before the price rose. ‘Insider trading’ was an unknown term in those days, but it fitted the situation perfectly. In a savage piece designed to arouse voter fury, Alan Reid reported this grossly opportunistic behaviour in the Sydney Sun. Reid also charged MPs with running Parliament as a club solely for their own benefit. At that time beer was in short supply and publicans rationed sales of bottled beer to a weekly quota for their regular customers. Reid’s point was that the non-members’ bar rationed these hard-to-get items (including cigarettes), while there were no restrictions on sales to MPs from the members’ bar. Reid reported that one Sydney-bound MP’s car was so loaded with beer that a rear spring broke. In the gallery there was great concern. While it was widely anticipated that the Sydney Sun staff might be kicked out of the Parliament, we feared the non-members’ bar and dining room might be closed to all gallery members. This was in the minds of members of the house when they ordered an inquiry by the Privileges Committee—one of the terms of reference asking it to examine ‘the wisdom or otherwise of continuing the extension of privileges to other than members of Parliament’. Fortunately, wisdom prevailed and privileges for gallery members (including Reid) remained. The special meeting of the gallery carried a resolution strongly supporting Reid and declaring ‘that the facts contained in it [Reid’s article] are correct’. The Privileges Committee conceded that the article was not ‘wholly untrue’ but was grossly exaggerated and, among other things, conveyed a false impression about the conduct of parliamentarians. It ruled there was a breach of privilege but considered ‘the house would best serve its own dignity by taking no further action in the matter’.

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