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Matter of Privilege Regarding Taito Philip Field

Speaker's Ruling - Matter of Privilege Regarding Taito Philip Field

Last week I received letters from the Leader of the Opposition raising a matter of privilege arising out of a report to the Prime Minister on matters relating to Taito Phillip Field.

I have found that no question of privilege is involved. Normally, in these circumstances the Speaker does not give reasons for such a finding. But the Speaker does have authority to make a statement to the House if the Speaker considers that circumstances warrant this (see Speaker’s Ruling 171/1). Because of the widespread interest in this matter this is a case in which I have decided to explain the basis for my decision to the House.

One aspect of parliamentary privilege is the power of the House to punish conduct that it considers to be a contempt of the House. Before 1996 the circumstances in which the House might invoke this power were ill-defined and were the subject of justifiable criticism on this ground. In an attempt to meet this criticism the House adopted what are now Standing Orders 399 and 400 defining the circumstances in which the House might use its power.

Standing Order 399 makes a general statement about contempt being an act or omission which—

(a) obstructs or impedes the House in the performance of its functions, or
(b) obstructs or impedes any member or officer of the House in the discharge of the member’s or officer’s duty, or
(c) has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such a result.

Standing Order 400 then gives a number of instances of specific actions or omissions which may be treated as contempt. These are not exhaustive and any other conduct that falls within S.O.399 can be treated as a contempt if the House decides that it is worthy of censure.

The Leader of the Opposition does not allege that any conduct revealed in the report falls specifically within S.O.400. He alleges that Mr Field has used his position as a member to secure a financial benefit and that this has brought the House into disrepute thus constituting a contempt under the general provisions of S.O.399.

The particular conduct which it is alleged Mr Field has engaged in is in receiving services on his properties in Auckland and Samoa in return for assistance Mr Field provided for immigration applications. This assistance took the form of submissions to Ministers considering those applications.

Standing Order 399 and parliamentary privilege generally is designed to protect the integrity of the parliamentary process. Actions which obstruct or impede the House “in the performance of its functions” may be a contempt. If a member of Parliament accepts a benefit for actions that that member has taken or is to take in respect of proceedings in the House or at a committee, that would be a contempt. S.O.400(i), (j) and (k) describe actions that fall into this area. If any evidence had been presented to me showing that Mr Field used parliamentary processes (such as questions or debate) to advance the immigration applications, a question of privilege would arise. But no such evidence has been presented. His interventions appear to have been confined to making submissions to Ministers – a common practice among members. As the services that Mr Field received are not linked to the parliamentary process, there is no question of privilege on which I can act.

However, it is appropriate that I add something to this finding.

The allegations against Mr Field really amount to questions about the general standard of conduct expected of someone who holds the office of member of Parliament. Parliamentary privilege covers some of this ground, but by no means all. Privilege does not, for example, extend to most of a member’s interactions with constituents. Thus communications with constituents are not subject to absolute privilege in the law of defamation. Only where interactions lead a member to take a parliamentary action (such as lodging a question or speaking in debate) is privilege engaged. Nor does privilege extend to other activities engaged in by members outside the House. Thus in recent years members have been charged with crimes and found in contempt of court without any question of parliamentary privilege being involved.

In 1994, the House of Commons, recognising that parliamentary privilege did not cover members’ general conduct adequately, adopted a code of conduct for members with the purpose of providing “a framework within which acceptable conduct should be judged”. The Privileges Committee was converted into a Standards and Privileges Committee and a parliamentary officer, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, was created to investigate complaints of breaches of the code. These rules operate alongside, but distinct from, parliamentary privilege. Most Australian legislatures have also adopted codes of conduct that supplement the parliamentary privilege rules.

In 1997 the Government Administration Committee recommended that there be a study of this system in New Zealand and successive Standing Orders Committees have heard submissions on whether there should be a code of conduct, even as recently as last week. But, to date, apart from where the privilege rules set out in S.O.400 apply, the House has not adopted any rules or guidelines relating to the standards of conduct expected by members. This is a matter for the House to attend to.

ENDS

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