When Tasmanian Speaker Sue Hickey spoke about senator Eric Abetz in State Parliament yesterday, she said things that ordinarily could get her sued.
But because she was speaking in a parliament, Ms Hickey was protected by parliamentary privilege when she suggested Senator Abetz had made disparaging comments about former staffer Brittany Higgins.
It means that even though Senator Abetz has strongly denied the claim and blasted it as “defamatory”, he can’t sue for defamation over comments made in the Tasmanian Parliament.
Here’s how that works.
What is parliamentary privilege?
Parliamentary privilege refers broadly to the protections and powers afforded to members of parliament to let them conduct their business without interference.
According to information published by Parliament House in Canberra, such freedoms for parliaments are “deeply ingrained in the history of free institutions”.
The most significant legal barrier it removes is the threat of defamation action being launched against an MP for something they say in parliament.
Parliamentary privilege does not only exist in Federal Parliament.(ABC News: Jenny Magee
It also protects them from criminal prosecution if, for instance, they breach a court suppression order.
In effect, members of parliament have almost unlimited freedom of speech when speaking in parliamentary proceedings.
Parliamentary privilege is often referred to in the context of Federal Parliament, but it is also extended to every state and territory parliament.
It’s why Ms Hickey was able to say what she said about Senator Abetz.
But parliamentary privilege is also strictly defined and only applies to parliamentary proceedings.
So Ms Hickey or anyone else would not be protected if they stepped outside the chamber and said the same thing.
How has it been used in the past?
Being able to say whatever you want and have it incorporated into the public record is a responsibility most politicians take very seriously, and parliamentary privilege is not used lightly.
Notoriously, former federal crossbench senator Derryn Hinch used his maiden speech in 2016 to name a number of child sex offenders whose identities had been suppressed by the courts.
Derryn Hinch was accuased of misusing his parliamentary privilege to name sex offenders.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty
Hinch, who as a broadcaster spent time in prison for breaching court orders by naming sex offenders, was accused of misusing his privilege as a result.
Earlier this year, Liberal MP Tim Wilson also used privilege to table an FBI case file on Chinese-Australian businessman Chau Chak Wing.
Dr Chau has denied any wrongdoing.
And more recently, before Attorney-General Christian Porter went public with his denial as the cabinet minister at the centre of a rape allegation, there was speculation the then-anonymous member of government could be named in Parliament.
What else does privilege cover?
While the most significant aspect of parliamentary privilege is the protection outlined above, the term actually refers to a number of powers and protections afforded to parliaments.
Federal parliamentary inquiries have the power to compel witnesses to appear and the power to punish people for contempt with a $5,000 fine or up to six months’ imprisonment.
Privilege also exempts members and senators from court attendance on days Parliament is sitting.
Is this only for politicians?
Parliamentary privilege doesn’t protect politicians so much as the parliament itself that means anyone participating in parliamentary proceedings is protected.
For instance, anyone required to give evidence to a parliamentary committee is protected.
Similarly, if you make a submission to a committee that is then released, then your words are also protected.