Tweeting from the Chamber

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Tweeting from the Chamber

Posted 14/03/2013 by Sophia Fernandes

On 12 March 2013, the Manager of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne asked Speaker Anna Burke to make a ruling on a tweet by Member for Bendigo, Steve Gibbons during question time, asking for the Member to withdraw.
Looks like @tonyabbottmhr has contracted out his nasty side to interjector's in the public gallery. A new low even for the Libs!
Mr Gibbons had tweeted this after two people had been ejected from the public gallery in succession, for interjecting during Question Time.

The question about MPs' use of twitter in the chamber is one that has become increasingly common amongst legislatures around the world. The debate ranges from those opposed to the use of twitter in parliamentary chambers, who argue that it takes MPs' attention away from the debate at hand, and is disrespectful to proceedings. Those in support of tweeting from the chamber argue that it is simply yet another way in which MPs can conduct their work in their increasingly time-poor lives and an opportunity to promote ‘real-time’ engagement with their constituents.

Speaker Anna Burke responded to the Question yesterday, stating that it was outside her role and responsibilities to monitor private communications ‘or use of social media when it is thought that they have come from the chamber’. Speaker Burke added that restricting twitter usage in the chamber would mean a blanket ban on hand-held electronic devices from the chamber, which would be undesirable. She reminded Members that twitter and social media communication even if done while in the chamber, is not covered by parliamentary privilege and any reflection on the Chair would be treated as an ‘important matter of order’.

Speaker Burke’s ruling mirrors that of the Victorian Legislative Assembly and the UK House of Commons which have both considered the matter through Committee.

Victorian parliament
In 2011, Victorian Labor MP Martin Foley tweeted from the chamber during Question Time and made a reflection on the Chair. The next day Speaker Ken Smith requested Mr Foley to withdraw and apologise in the chamber. There was heated debate on the viability of the Speaker ruling on tweets and social media comments by MPs, particularly as the Standing Orders did not cover social media use. Parliamentarians were wary of Mr Smith setting a precedent by demanding an apology and withdrawal from an MP over something that was said outside the chamber. The Assembly requested the Speaker to refer the matter to the Standing Orders Committee. Despite this, Speaker Smith suspended Mr Foley from the chamber for an hour and a half for refusing to apologise.

In December 2012 the committee reported on the matter and issued guidelines on the use of social media. The committee reiterated that ‘any comments made on social media are not covered by parliamentary privilege’. They also pointed out that the tweet was in fact made while the member was in the chamber but regardless, any reflection on the Chair in or outside parliament can be considered as contempt. The committee included in their guidelines that any reflection on the Chair on social media by both MPs and members of the press gallery would be considered as contempt and treated as such.

UK House of Commons
The UK House of Commons Procedure Committee reported on the use of hand-held electronic devices from the Chamber and Committees in March 2011. Prior to this hand-held devices were banned from the Chamber and in Committees; the Committee recommended that this ban be overturned, ‘provided that they are silent, and used in a way that does not impair decorum; that Members making speeches in the Chamber or in committee may refer to electronic devices in place of paper speaking notes; and that electronic devices, including laptops, may be used silently in committee meetings, including select committees.’

On the issue of twitter, the report stated:
Tweeting about proceedings from the galleries is in our view no different in degree from presenters commenting on live broadcasts of proceedings or indeed from tweeting or blogging about proceedings when watched from outside the Chamber. Whilst tweeting from inside the Chamber is clearly a more sensitive matter, we consider that it would be inconsistent to ban this one practice whilst advocating the approach based on decorum rather than activity which we advocate in this report. We also recognise that it would be impossible for the Chair to police tweeting by Members and that the Chair should not be expected to rule on allegations that inappropriate tweeting is taking or has taken place.
Even though the committee reported in early 2011, it took until October 2012 for the House to consider the recommendations. Despite strong support for changes to the rules, 11 MPs moved an amendment to the motion adopting the recommendations so that hand-held devices would only be used ‘to receive and send urgent messages, as a substitute for paper speaking notes and to refer to documents for use in debates, but not for any other purpose.’ The amendment was defeated 206 to 63.

While other parliamentary chambers have begun to address the issue of fast-paced communication, social media and technology use in their chambers, there has been an overall lag in issuing formal guidelines for parliamentarians. It would be expected that as more and more politicians use platforms such as twitter that parliament would be called to adjudicate on these forms of communication.

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