Last week the Standing Orders Committee of the NT Parliament released new guidelines relating to the right of an aggrieved person to respond to statements made by members of the Legislative Assembly under parliamentary privilege.

The changes to the standing orders will allow, following approval by the speaker and consideration by the standing orders committee, the publication of a response by in the NT Parliamentary Hansard.

Crikey readers will recall that earlier this year we reported on an extraordinary spray by the Member for MacDonnell, Alison Anderson, on the last day of NT parliamentary sittings for 2009. In the course of that “remarkably well-crafted” speech, Anderson took aim at a local ABC TV journalist.

“There is an old, dissipated television reporter at the ABC. I am not going to name him today, even though I could under parliamentary privilege. I could use his name and expose him before you all for what he is; but I am just going to tell you about the most remarkable event in a long campaign this reporter and his associates have waged against me….

“In the early months of this year … this reporter was given a false leak about me, and he pursued it with a will in order to entrap me on camera. He rang my press secretary and told her the ABC had already filmed the CLP opposition discussing this matter. I established, as soon as I had done my television interview with the ABC, this was a lie. I cannot tolerate liars in private or in public life; and in the media, which trades on truth, lies are utterly unacceptable. I will never speak to that reporter again.”

Anderson didn’t identify the reporter but in the small community that passes for the NT press gallery, she didn’t need to.

Two days after Anderson’s spray at him, Murray McLaughlin wrote to the speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Jane Aagard. He noted that in his view Anderon’s reference to “an old dissipated television reporter for the ABC” was a clear reference to him, and “putting aside” the fact that this was a “cheap insult”, Anderson accused him of being a liar. McLaughlin went on:

“Ms Anderson has used parliamentary privilege to defame me, and that defamation is rooted in wrong information. It is outrageous that a member of Parliament can abuse privilege by making false accusations against a private citizen.”

Mclaughlin asked Aagard to correct the Hansard and to censure Anderson publicly. As Crikey noted in February, Aagard’s hands were tied.

There was no way by which she could correct the Hansard or accord McLaughlin an opportunity to respond to Anderson’s “cheap insults” and “false accusations”. Aagard told McLaughlin that she would refer the matter to the standing orders committee for consideration.

This reference wasn’t the first time that the NT Parliament had discussed according aggrieved citizens a right of reply to comments by members in the Legislative Assembly, having first considered it in 1994 and again in 1995, 1996 and most recently in 2000.

But Anderson’s vituperative spray in November 2009 was by all accounts the catalyst for what many here view as a long-overdue and essential change — protection from the abuse of parliamentary privilege.

Anderson’s chequered career in politics was, in part, the subject of Russell Skelton’s recent book, King Brown Country. The King Brown in the title is a reference to the nickname used widely here in the Territory for Anderson.

Skelton’s book is a scrupulously fair — but excoriating — review of Anderson’s long political life and the failings of governments — at all levels — at her home community of Papunya, 300 kilometres west of Alice Springs.

King Brown Country charts Anderson’s rise from her first job as a junior office worker to community clerk at Papunya, to ATSIC Commissioner and eventually election to the NT parliament in 2001.

In August 2009, after reaching the peak of her parliamentary career — for a few brief months she was the most powerful elected Aboriginal woman in the country — she spat the dummy and quit Labor.

On August 6, 2009, Anderson sat behind a card table in Darwin’s Smith Street Mall and announced that the following Tuesday would be “… the biggest day in Territory history … the greatest gift to Territorians”. Skelton writes of that promise that:

“Anderson was jubilant. It seemed the [Labor] government would fall and that if Henderson was not yet a dead man walking he would soon be headed for the knackery … Anderson had another reason to be cocky. She had negotiated a secret undertaking in writing with [NT Country Liberals Opposition Leader Terry] Mills to enter into a coalition arrangement should the Country Liberals form government.”

But it all ended in tears and humiliation. Skelton again:

“It was a fiasco for Anderson. The former Papunya clerk had staked her entire ministerial career on the success of Mills’ no-confidence motion and lost…

“Anderson was left to contemplate her humiliation: the greatest day in Territory history turned out to be her Waterloo.”

The introduction of a right of reply may, in a supreme irony, be seen as the most enduring legacy of Alison Anderson’s political career.

The right of reply will give a person referred to in debates in the NT Assembly, and who claims that “he or she has been adversely affected by reputation or in respect of dealings or associations with others, or injured in occupation, trade, office or financial credit, or that his or her privacy has been unreasonably invaded”, three months to make submissions to the speaker requesting that an “appropriate response” be incorporated into the Hansard.

That three-month deadline means that Murray McLaughlin will be denied his opportunity to respond to Anderson’s comments but there are several others who have been the subject of recent debate in the NT Legislative Assembly who might want to take the opportunity to seek a right of reply.

The first that come to mind are failed Country Liberal candidate Leo Abbott and the previous Labor member for Solomon in the federal Parliament, Damian Hale. Both were the subject of feverish comment and debate in the Legislative Assembly immediately before the recent federal election and again as recently as a week ago.

Crikey asked Hale and Abbott whether they would seek to make a response to the comments made about them in the course of debate but had not received a response by deadline.

Peter Fray

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