Good job, Oz feds: Conroy wants you investigated for privilege and contempt

Inspector Cluseau called: he wants his bumbling schtick back

As was inevitable, the fate of the “NBN documents” is off to the Australian Senate's privileges committee.

The referral to the committee was a formality, since nobody in the Senate wants to find themselves raided by the Australian Federal Police for receiving leaked documents.

However, Senator Stephen Conroy, chief target of the raids, pulled the ratchet a little tighter, saying he also wants the committee to investigate the possible contempt of parliament.

The AFP raids in question happened in May – during the election campaign – and within Parliament in August.

Labor has always claimed parliamentary privilege over documents seized by the AFP's ham-fisted plods officers. If the Senate committee agrees, none of those documents would be usable, should any criminal charges arise.

The contempt issue is more serious. Conroy told the Senate last night – August 31 – he wanted the privileges committee to investigate:

  • Whether there's been improper interference, or attempted improper interference, with his ability to conduct his role as a senator;
  • Whether his communications, or those of his staff, had been intercepted by the AFP; and if so, whether that would constitute a contempt of parliament;
  • Whether nbnTM may have committed a contempt, by using information revealed during the raids as the basis for penalising staff.

Shortly after the May raids, two nbnTM staffers were stood down; later, chairman Ziggy Switkowski came out swinging, denouncing any and all leakers as partisan ideologues and thieves, in an op-ed that drew a public rebuke from Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson.

Conroy's words were carefully chosen: both houses of parliament have the power to punish contempts, but only for an act which “amounts, or is intended or likely to amount, to an improper interference with the free exercise by a House or committee of its authority or functions, or with the free performance by a member of the member’s duties as a member” (Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987, explained at the Parliament House site here).

A contempt finding is probably unlikely, however: the privileges committee would have to agree to it, and a motion would have to pass a vote in the Senate.

It's much more likely that in simple self-defence, the committee will kill off the investigation by confirming privilege over the documents. ®

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