Matters of Public Importance: Member for Dobell and the Australian Constitution (23/05/2012)

10 January 2013

Jones-Parli-Speaking300.jpgMr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (16:39): I welcome this matter of public importance that has been brought to us today by the member for Lyne. I think, in an unusual precedent, it is supported by all members of this place. It is a measured and principled approach to matters of current public controversy and it enables members of this place to set out the proper role of parliament when questions are raised about another member of parliament, particularly when those questions go to potential criminal proceedings.

I start at the outset by stating that I am deeply distressed, as I am sure every member of this place is, by the findings that were recently handed down in a report by Fair Work Australia into the affairs of the Health Services Union of Australia. I am deeply concerned as an Australian and I am deeply concerned as a member of this place, but I am also deeply concerned as somebody who has dedicated over 15 years of his life to the trade union movement of this country, a movement whose values and principles I love and whose best traditions I seek to uphold. Anybody who holds those values and who has that deep affection for those traditions cannot look on with anything but deep concern about the misuse of members' money and the abuse of processes such as have been alleged to have been found in the Fair Work Australia report.

But the issue not whether or not we condone the behaviour that has been found by Fair Work Australia. Of course that is not the issue before us today. I do not think there is one member of this House that would condone that alleged behaviour. The question is not even whether we are convinced by the statement that has been recently given in this place by the member for Dobell. I am sure there are many people in this place who were convinced by the statement that was given by the member for Dobell and many people who were not convinced by it. But that is not the question for us in this House today. The question that we must consider is what the role of parliament is, and that takes us straight to the Constitution.

Make no bones about it, the matters that are being debated in this matter of public importance and the matters that have been strewn all over the pages of every newspaper in this country for the last few months and have been raised in just about every motion for suspension of standing orders and other motions before this House by the member for Sturt go straight to the heart of the Constitution. There is a great danger in the strategy that has been proposed by those opposite. It goes to who gets to decide who sits in parliament. Make no bones about it, the whole strategy that is being directed by those opposite is about who gets to decide who sits in parliament. We should be under no illusion about what is driving those opposite.

What is driving those opposite is an attempt to force the resignation of the member for Dobell. That is what is driving the opposition's every breath, their every strategy, their every tactic in this placeto try and force the resignation of the member for Dobell. This has been admitted quite recently by the member for North Sydney in a Press Club address. It has in fact been admitted by the member for Sturt, with his numerous attempts to have the member for Dobell excluded from this House. That is what is at the heart of their every strategy, and we should be careful about that.

I have always adopted the principle, as a law student, a practising lawyer and a trade unionist, that what we permit to be done to the least of us is what we condone for those we revere. At this point in time it might be allegations made against the member for Dobell, but this parliament has had before it a great number of controversies, whether controversies about race, about gender, about sexual orientation or about political values. They are the proper debates that should be had in this place but, if we as a collective of men and women representing different electorates and different political persuasions are able to come in here and form a majority, the effect of that majority being to subvert the electors of a particular electorate by excluding their member of parliament from sitting in and voting in this place, we are tearing up the Constitution. That is what we are doing. We are subverting the democratic right of electors to determine who they choose as their elected member of parliament to sit in this place and participate in debates and votes of this House, which determine the laws of this land. Have no doubt about it, and I say this to all of those in this House: what we permit to be done to the least of us is what we condone for those we revere. There is a grave danger in the strategy that is being adopted by the opposition in relation to this matter.

Upholding the Constitution is normally the role of conservatives, who stand in this place and say they uphold the Constitution. I stand here today as one of the few members in this debate who have said, 'It is our role as parliamentarians to uphold the Constitution.' I will go to some of the suggestions which have been made by the member for Denison. There may be some value in some of the suggestions that he has made. The framers of our Constitution ensured that there was a separation of powers which distributed power within the Commonwealth and between the various arms of parliament. They framed a Constitution which ensured that parliament was elected by the people, to make the laws; that the executive was elected by the parliament to administer those laws; that the courts were established by the Constitution to ensure that this parliament operates within its constitutional powers; that the laws that are subsequently made by this parliament are upheld and do not infringe citizens' rights vis-a-vis the Constitution; and that when citizens have objections or concerns about their rights they have a place to go to to have those rights determined by an independent court of law.

Courts themselves have expertise governed by the rules of evidence, which do not apply in this place. Those rules of evidence and rules of precedent have evolved over many centuries to ensure that both the defendant and the prosecutor are accorded every fairness that should be accorded to them. There are rules and precedents that do not apply in this place, and that is why we have established courts, to adjudicate upon the sorts of allegations that have been made against the member for Dobell. Let us be frank: those allegations of one sort or another could be made against any one of us. Allegations were made against a member of the Liberal Party only yesterday concerning his affairs before he became a member of parliament. It is not the role of this parliament to adjudicate upon those. Although we might all have our opinions, it is the role of a properly constituted court under our Constitution to determine and adjudicate upon those disputes.

It is important that parliament stays within its constitutional confines, it is important that courts stay within their constitutional confines and it is important that we as members of parliament stay within our constitutional confines. It maintains not only a balance between this parliament and other parliaments within the Federation but also the liberties of each and every Australian citizen.

Some suggestions have been made during the debate that we should alter the rules around which a member of parliament can be ejected because of their behaviourwhether the current two sanctions are sufficient and whether bankruptcy and certain criminal convictions are sufficient. I agree that a debate on these issues is a worthy one for us to have but, ultimately, it is not for members in this place to adjudicate on whether the current constitutional provisions are sufficient. It is for the people of Australia, through a properly constituted referendum, to determine whether or not we should alter our Constitution. If members of this place believe that that is a worthy matter to take to the people of Australia, then so be it. We can have a debate about that. But it is not for us solely to determine that. That role lies with the people of Australia.

These are important matters but, as the member for Denison has observed just now, there are many who do not live and breathe the affairs of this place and who must scratch their heads and wonder about the amount of time that these matters have occupied in this place. They may say they are important, but they may wonder whether they are the most important things that we should be occupying our parliamentary time with. I for one believe we should be spending a lot more time debating the economy, the future of our industries, the future for our young people, skills and education, and our place in the region. That is not to diminish this matter of public importance, but I think we have spent enough time talking about it today.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms Rishworth ): Order! The discussion on this matter has concluded.