25 April 2012

Contempt and circumlocution

The Queensland Attorney-General and Minister for Justice has announced that lying to the state Parliament will be a criminal offence (under the Qld Criminal Code) rather than contempt of parliament.

Yesterday's media release states that -
 The drafting of laws making it illegal to lie to the Queensland Parliament will commence with Cabinet to endorse the Government’s election commitment of re-introducing this as a criminal offence.
Attorney-General and Minister for Justice Jarrod Bleijie MP said the State Government would amend the Queensland Criminal Code to re-enact laws repealed under the previous administration. ...
“Knowingly giving false evidence before the Parliament or one of its committees is conduct cutting to the heart of parliamentary privilege and is deserving of criminal sanction.”
Mr Bleijie said that in 2006 the previous State Government had repealed the section that made lying in Parliament a criminal offence after the Parliament had dealt with allegations that the then Minister for Health, Gordon Nuttall MP, had misled a Parliamentary Estimates Committee.
“At that time, the matter constituted not only a contempt of Parliament but under section 57 of the Criminal Code, knowingly giving false evidence before Parliament was a crime with a penalty of up to seven years’ jail,” he said.
“The Parliament resolved to deal with the matter as contempt of Parliament, rather than a criminal offence, and accepted Mr Nuttall’s resignation as a Minister and member of the Executive Council and his apology to Parliament as an appropriate penalty. 
“The previous government then passed amendments to the Criminal Code to repeal section 57, giving Parliament exclusive jurisdiction to deal with a person who provides false evidence to it or one of its committees.”
Mr Bleijie said reintroducing the relevant section of the Criminal Code would enhance the Parliament’s reputation. 
“Allowing the courts to deal with such conduct guards against any suspicions of political interference and cronyism,” he said.
Describing the changes in 2006, then Qld Premier Peter Beattie commented that "It is about time that we got rid of some of these anachronistic provisions that have been around since Adam and Eve were in shorts."

Adam Tomkins in 'A right to mislead Parliament?' in 16(1) Legal Studies (1996) 63-83 took a more dour view, commenting -
The assertion was recently made in the House of Commons that ministers have the right, in certain circumstances, to mislead Parliament, either by telling an outright lie, or by keeping quiet.' This astonishing statement concerns a central aspect of the British constitution: namely the essential ability of Parliament to acquire accurate information about government, even (or perhaps especially) when the government does not want to give it. Despite popular cynicism as to the ability of politicians ever to tell the truth, not lying to Parliament has long been regarded as being of the utmost importance. The very survival of politicians in office has often been made dependent on whether it can be shown that they have misled Parliament: 'John Profumo lost office not because of his sexual misbehaviour but because he lied to Parliament. When Mrs Thatcher narrowly survived the Westland affair the debate was on whether Parliament had been deceived'. The ability to ensure the effective acquisition of relevant information is essential to Parliament's key tasks of engaging in meaningful and effective debate, and of scrutinising the work of the executive:  "securing information is at the heart of the debating or scrutiny process. Ill-informed debate cannot be effective … the price of democracy is eternal scrutiny [and] the success of a democracy is to be judged by the extent to which it can ensure that government is publicly accountable".
Tomkins went on to quote the Treasury & Civil Service Committee comment that -
the knowledge that ministers and civil servants may evade questions and put the best gloss on the facts but will not lie or knowingly mislead the House of Commons is one of the most powerful tools MPs have in holding the executive to account. Not only is the requirement laid down clearly in government guidance to ministers, it is a requirement which the House of Commons itself expects from all its members, departure from which standard can be treated as a contempt ... We accept that the line beween non-disclosure and a misleading answer is often a fine one, not least because the avoidance of misleading answers requires not only strict accuracy but also an awareness of the interpretations which could reasonably be placed upon an answer by others, but ministers should be strengthened in their determination to remain the right side of that line by certainty of the consequences of not doing so. Any minister who has been found to have knowingly misled Parliament should resign'.