Should Politicians Be Permitted to Accuse Others of Crimes With Impunity Under Parliamentary Privilege?

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Parliament House in Canberra

Senator David Van may not have been well known before last week. 

But he is now a household name after Senator Lidia Thorpe accused him last week of sexual assaulting her in parliament, under the protection of parliamentary privilege.

During a debate in parliament, Ms Thorpe unleashed on Senator Van, accusing him of harassment and sexual assault, before being asked to withdraw her remarks due to parliamentary formalities.

Parliamentary privilege

Parliamentary privilege is meant to promote free and open discussion in parliament, and to thereby enable and encourage the ventilation of issues which affect the population without fear of adverse legal consequences.

The privilege exempts politicians from both civil and criminal proceedings for anything they say in parliament – including as during question time – but over the years has been misused to destroy the careers and reputations of people without due process, let alone proof to a criminal or even a civil standard.

Ms Thorpe went on to state she would not be making a complaint to police over her  accusation, which means the veracity of her claim is unlikely to ever be tested, while the career of a fellow politician has been destroyed.

As a result of the privilege, Senator Van does not have recourse to the laws of defamation to attempt to salvage his reputation, and will not be able to ‘have his day in court’.

It should, in fairness, be said that this was not the first time Senator Thorpe raised the allegation against Senator Van – she had raised it in 2021 while a Greens Senator, and the matter was then referred to the Coalition, but little was done about it other than Senator Van moving offices so he was further away from Senator Thorpe.

A day is a long time in politics 

Less than 24 hours after Ms Thorpe’s claim was made in parliament, opposition leader Peter Dutton issued a statement to the effect that Mr Van is no longer welcome in the Liberal Party Room, and that he should resign.

It must be noted that after Ms Thorpe made her claim, a second woman, former Senator Amanda Stoker, made her own allegation that Mr Van had touched her on the bottom at an event at Parliament House in 2020. 

Peter Dutton says a third woman has also made a complaint, although the identity of the complainant and nature of the claim have not been made public.

The presumption of innocence

Mr Van has vehemently denied the allegations made by Senator Thorpe, and has made clear he will fully participate in any investigations or inquiries.

He said his best recollection is that the only time he ever made physical contact with Ms Thorpe was when he should her hand, and that he certainly did not harass let alone sexually assault her.

With regard to the claim made by  Amanda Stoker, Senator Van stated “I have no recollection of any such event, and can confirm it is not something I would ever do.” 

Australia is meant to be a nation which protects democratic ideals such as the presumption of innocence, and it is quite clear Mr Van has not only been denied this presumption but – due to the operation of parliamentary privilege – has also been denied to ability to defend his reputation by commencing legal proceedings.

Expelled from the Party 

In a similar vein to his predecessor Scott Morrison, who made an apology to Brittany Higgins during question time for what she claimed to have gone through at the hands on Bruce Lehrmann, Peter Dutton’s actions make it evident he does not believe in due process.

 “He’s been very clear about his denial both to me and in public comments that he’s made but I didn’t accept that and that’s why I made a decision to exclude him from the party room”, the Opposition Leader stated.

In response, David Van has now resigned from the Liberal Party. Whether he will remain in politics as an Independent remains to be seen. 

By his actions, Mr Dutton seems to have once again assumed the role of judge, jury and executioner – a role to which he has been accustomed for many years as both Immigration Minister and Home Affairs Minister.

Unproven claims destroy lives

And while Dutton, the former police officer famously known for his abuse of Indigenous teens while he was a police officer, continues to flex his muscles, it is important to bear in mind that a man’s reputation and career have now been destroyed by nothing more than claims, under the legal protection of parliamentary privilege. 

In recent weeks, as the defamation case brought by Bruce Lehrmann against journalist Lisa Wilkinson and Network Ten looms closer, media reports have shown just how easily it can be to set a popular narrative, and, in doing so, not take in a wider view and the potential for more possibilities than those that may appear obvious. 

Toxicity in Parliament 

In her Independent review of workplace culture, former sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins, found four out of five people working in Commonwealth parliamentary offices had personally experienced sexual harassment, and more than half had experienced actual or attempted sexual assault. 

In addition, many have experienced bullying and discrimination. 

And while these statistics broadly reflect the numbers we see in other industries generally, they’re alarming by any measure, and seem to suggest that the very people we’re entrusting to make the laws which ensure our workplaces safer, cannot seem to identify, or manage unsafe conduct  themselves.

This is why it is even more imperative for the claims against David Van to be handled with fairness, independence and integrity – because we all know by now, Parliament House is not necessarily a safe place to work. 

But this as a fact within itself must not muddy the water surrounding these very serious allegations, which have now been referred to the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service. 

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