STATEMENT BY HARRIETT SWIFT FOR INCORPORATION INTO THE REPORT OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES PRIVILEGES COMMITTEE
The subject of this report is an April Fools Day joke. It aimed to satirise a scheme of Government grants to give taxpayers’ cash to subsidise loggers to turn trees, often hundreds of years old – into woodchips.
Loggers have received millions of dollars from the taxpayer to buy machines which make the industry ever more capital intensive and put workers out of a job.
I do not dispute the committee’s broad version of the events that occurred, but I do dispute the basic premises from which it has operated, some facts in the report and the selectivity with which some other facts are presented.
I have no complaints about my treatment by the committee at the hearing on March 22 (other than not being given the chance to make a closing statement). I believe it gave me a fair hearing. However, I don’t believe it gave Mr Phil Mathie, the logger, a fair hearing.
According to the draft report, the only person who was actually tricked as an April Fool was Mr Mathie. Nobody else admits to having been tricked. However, this is solely on the word of the Hon. Gary Nairn, who says that Mr Mathie was tricked. We have only his word for it and in the interests of natural justice, I believe that Mr Mathie should have been able to tell the Committee in person whether or not he was an April Fool. If asked directly, Mr Mathie may well have recalled things differently. I am not known for my admiration of loggers, but I believe in fairness to Mr Mathie, the Committee ought to have asked him directly whether or not he was an April Fool, rather than take Mr Nairn’s word for it.
I dispute that my conduct amounted to “an improper interference with the free exercise by a House or a Committee of its authority or functions, or with the free performance by a member of the member’s duties as a member.” That is a very warped and grandiose interpretation of what began and ended as an April Fools Day prank.
Poking borak at a politician might be construed as “improperly interfering with the …free performance by a member of the member’s duties as a member” in so far as it might prevent the true virtue, honour and worth of the member from shining through to a skeptical public; or in some circumstances stripping away the trumpery that conceals the hypocrisy and venality of the member. Of course, I am not suggesting either of these happened in this instance, but to interpret Section 4 of the Parliamentary Privileges Act so widely makes it virtually meaningless. Anything that annoys a politician would be contempt.
The report says that “misuse [of a politician’s letterhead or signature] would be regarded by the community as a very serious matter.” I doubt that. I don’t think many people would see this as anything other than a joke. Moreover, it is quite unwarranted to invoke an assumed public opinion about a matter of which the public knows nothing.
I don’t believe I can be guilty of a contempt of Parliament if there hasn’t been any damage done. The report asserts that there has been damage, but again, we only have Mr Nairn’s untested word for that. There is no evidence from Mr Mathie or unbiased evidence from anyone else, including the Australian Federal Police to show that there was damage to anything other than Mr Nairn’s dignity. I propose that no evidence is possible because there was no damage. If anything, my activities have probably brought Mr Nairn and Mr Mathie closer together. They have bonded against a common adversary, me.
The Committee has failed to acknowledge that its title “Inquiry into allegations of documents fraudulently and inaccurately written in the name of a Member” is a misnomer. There was no fraud, a fact confirmed by the police, so there were no documents fraudulently …. written in anybody’s name. Similarly, the question of “inaccuracy” is spurious when the material is satire.
The report is drafted in very loaded language, using wording such as “admission,” “potentially a criminal offence” and so on. This, in the absence of much detail on what the inquiry was actually about gives the reader quite a pejorative impression. The website: http://www.chipstop.forests.org.au/april_fools_day.htm provides the missing context for the matters covered in the report.
The matter was a joke. Mr Nairn apparently had trouble seeing the funny side of it and may not have liked it. Had the boot been on the other foot, I would probably not have liked it. Nobody likes having the piss taken out of them, but I would have taken it on the chin and moved on. I would not have wasted police time and resources and abused the processes of the Parliament to exact a petty revenge on a constituent who only wants to save the far south coast forests from the ravages of woodchipping.
Mr Nairn is the Minister who bankrolls his colleagues to spam their constituents with tens of millions of dollars worth of junk mail per year. He should not be surprised if, occasionally, one of his constituents strikes back and uses some of his spam to satirize his Government’s policies.
On an even more serious note, Mr Nairn misled the Parliament on 10 August 2005 by omitting the important fact that the material which so offended him was dated April Fools Day. He thus also misled the Committee. His media statement the following day also misled the public by omitting this important fact. Arguably, that makes his statements to the House and to the media, both contempt of the Parliament. Mr Nairn would have already received AFP advice that no fraud had been committed when he raised the matter in the House and alleged “fraud” to describe the events that had merely annoyed him.
Lies about Logging
While it is not directly relevant to the question of Parliamentary Privilege, the logging industry itself is a notorious purveyor of false information about the environment and environmentalists (e.g.; logging is good for the climate; woodchipping is sustainable; conservationists are terrorists and so on). It does this routinely, 365 days a year with a very large budget, much of it sourced from the taxpayer. It sets up front organizations purporting to be community based groups which are actually bankrolled by the logging industry and operate in the interests of the logging industry. Timber Communities Australia is an obvious example, as was the “A-Team” which operated in Victoria for some years.
Jokes and Satire
To my mind, the best jokes tap into human vanity and greed. I am satisfied that this one did both.
I don’t apologise for it and I give no undertakings about not doing something similar again, provided I can think of a good enough joke.
At the time of writing I have no idea what penalty the Parliament will impose on me and I do recognize that the Committee could still have the last laugh on me. Nothing would surprise me in John Howard’s Australia.
22 May 2007