In other words, the first call on this issue is going to be Speaker David Carter’s. And I suspect it’s going to be a pretty tricky one to make. There is the question of whether there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Peter Dunne actually lied when he said he was not the source of the leak. Because while the Henry Report said that it couldn’t rule Dunne out as the leak’s source, it didn’t say he was. So while a number of commentators have joined the dots and concluded he did it (and therefore lied in his response to Peters), there isn’t any official finding that this is the case.
Furthermore, even if there is some evidence in the Henry Report to support a conclusion that Dunne may have lied when he said he wasn’t the leak’s source, did he “deliberately attempt to mislead the House or a committee” by doing so? Recall that he was before the Finance and Expenditure Committee in his role as Revenue Minister, to answer questions relevant to his responsibilities in that portfolio. Winston Peters then began badgering him with questions relating to the Kitteridge Report leak.
Given this fact, the question then becomes whether a witness before a select committee misleads it if she or he falsely answers a question that wasn’t relevant to the committee’s proceedings in the first place. Or, instead, did Peter Dunne simply deliberately attempt mislead Winston Peters … in which case, there’s no contempt of Parliament involved. Because contempt relates to the work of the House of Representatives as an institution, not to the individuals within it: it isn’t, for example, a contempt of Parliament for an MP to tell a barefaced lie to another MP during a public debate on the campaign trail … but it is for a Minister to lie to an MP who asks her or him a question in the House.
So there’s an at least tenable argument that even if you think Dunne lied, he didn’t lie to the House (or a committee of the House). I which case, there is no contempt and so no question of privilege to be considered.
I agree it i going to be a tricky call to make. No doubt if Carter declines, he will be attacked by the Opposition as Geddis notes:
Hanging over all this is another issue, however. It isn’t even a week since the Speaker, David Carter, made his decision that United Future could continue to be recognised as a party for parliamentary purposes. As I noted in this post, and as others have noted elsewhere, the reasoning for that decision is somewhat odd. Furthermore, it caused a (probably overdone) eruption of opposition anger against the Speaker. In the light of this, can David Carter really afford to find that the complaint against Peter Dunne doesn’t involve a question of privilge? What future for his role in the Speaker’s chair if he is seen to make two quick rulings in Peter Dunne’s favour?
I would hope the decision is made on its merits, not on how it will be perceived.