Odgers' Australian Senate Practice Thirteenth Edition

Chapter 17 - Witnesses

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Offences by witnesses

The Senate's Privilege Resolutions set out actions by witnesses which may have the tendency or effect of obstructing the Senate or its committees in conducting inquiries, and which may therefore be treated as contempts.[78] These offences include:

  • refusing to make an oath or affirmation or to give some similar undertaking to tell the truth when required to do so
  • refusing without reasonable excuse to answer a question
  • giving false or misleading evidence
  • failing to attend or to produce documents when required to do so
  • avoiding service of an order by the Senate or a committee
  • destroying or tampering with documents required by the Senate or a committee.

It is extremely rare for witnesses to be charged with any of these offences. Most cases of alleged contempts involving witnesses concern allegations that witnesses have been interfered with.[79] This is an indication that the main concern of the Senate in conducting inquiries is to ensure that its witnesses are protected rather than to coerce witnesses.

It would not be fair for a witness who appears voluntarily by invitation to be required to answer a question; only witnesses under summons should be so required. In 1971 when a witness appearing voluntarily before the Select Committee on Securities and Exchange declined to answer a question, the witness was subsequently summoned to appear and then required to answer the question.

For observations on the destruction of documents by witnesses, see Chapter 2, Parliamentary Privilege, under Should the power to deal with contempts be transferred to the courts?

78. Resolution 6(12), (13), (14) and (15).
79. See Chapter 2, Parliamentary Privilege, for cases investigated.