Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Parliament is not a court: abusing its privilege does not lead to just outcomes

Parliamentary privilege is one of the more powerful rights bestowed upon our parliament, and, unfortunately it is often abused. As an absolute defence against defamation (and other actions) it is a powerful tool that can be used by parliament to discuss issues of significant public importance without the fear of legal action against parliamentarians. However, its abuse by parliamentarians can lead to gross injustices and even undermine and damage the processes of the justice system.

Senator Xenophon's recent naming of a Catholic priest  in parliament for alleged sex crimes is one such abuse. The allegations are yet to be investigated by the police and the sole reason for naming the priest is the Catholic Church's refusal to stand the priest down. Sen. Xenophon had said that the Church had taken too long to respond to the serious allegations.

It may be true that the Church has not acted adequately to respond to these allegations and its actions in the recent past have highlighted its inability to deal with allegations of this kind. However, the naming of an accused in parliament before guilt has been proven will do little to encourage the Church to amend its processes with regard to dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct. In fact, it may make the Church less likely to be forthcoming if there is an overhanging threat of accused priests being named and publicised through the parliament.

Any accused person has a right to the presumption of innocence, regardless of the crime. Sen. Xenophon's abuse of the power of parliamentary privilege stands in direct contrast to this cornerstone of our justice system.

Sen. Xenophon's response to accusations by the chair of the Australian Catholic Justice Council, Bishop Saunders, that Xenophon's actions constitute a "stunt" that hasn't "done the cause of justice any good at all", has been to appeal to its popularity among the public. This is just an appeal to mob justice of the kind that is normally the purview of shock-jocks and tabloids, not the Commonwealth Parliament (although previous abuses of the privilege have similarly dragged it down to that level).

Sen. Xenophon's actions have done nothing to further the cause of victims of sexual abuse. The only outcome of this is to publicise an investigation into an accused person, even before they have been charged with an offence. It is possible that Sen. Xenophon may even have compromised the accused's ability to receive a fair trial and undermined the victim's ability to achieve justice through the courts. Xenophon's actions do nothing but undermine the justice system and the integrity of the parliament using the victims of abuse as a platform for a cynical exercise in self-promotion.

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