The independent Senator for  South Australia Nick Xenophon has served notice of a rare but very serious motion concerning the possible intimidation of a witness to a recent inquiry into the processes involved in the ATSB producing its much criticised final report into the 2009 Pel-Air crash.

This is the notice of motion.

A You Tube of the President of the Senate stating that this was neither a trivial nor unworthy proposed course of action can be seen at this link.

This is a summary of Senate practice in relation to contempt, published on the Australian Parliament House web site with emphasis added.

When the actions of a witness or another person influencing a witness have the effect of obstructing the inquiries of a Senate committee (or future inquiries), those actions may be treated as contempts. Examples of such offences include:

  •  Refusing without reasonable excuse to answer a question;
  •  Giving false or misleading evidence;
  •  Failing to attend or to produce documents when required to do so;
  •  Intimidation of a witness;
  •  Adverse treatment of a witness;
  •  Wilfully disturbing a committee while it is meeting.

The Senate refers allegations of contempt to its Committee of Privileges for consideration and report. This committee has developed a considerable body of case law concerning parliamentary privilege, especially in respect of the rights and obligations of witnesses, interference with witnesses and the giving of misleading evidence.

The committee has, for example, inquired into a case where the chairman and senior members of a statutory body attempted to place restrictions on another member of the body from giving evidence. Although no contempt was found to have been committed, the committee was highly critical of the actions of the statutory body.

In another case, the Committee of Privileges investigated an allegation that a witness received adverse treatment from his superior officers as a result of his appearance at a joint committee hearing. Senior officers of a statutory body imposed a penalty on the junior officer, who had given evidence in a private capacity. The Committee of Privileges found that a contempt had been committed and was strongly critical of the officers and the organisation.

The Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 provides that a House of Parliament may impose terms of imprisonment or substantial fines for individuals and corporations as a penalty for contempt. To date the Senate has not had occasion to use either of these penalties, preferring an educative and preventative approach. The Senate has accepted apologies and remedial action, and has encouraged government officials in particular to attend training courses on the rights and obligations of witnesses before parliamentary committees.

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