On 12 March 2013, the then Manager of Opposition Business (Christopher Pyne MP) 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. Mr Gibbons had tweeted:
@SteveGibbonsMP ‘Looks like @tonyabbottmhr has contracted out his nasty side to interjectors 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 following day Speaker Anna Burke responded, stating that it was outside her role and responsibilities to monitor private communications or the 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.
Members are reminded that any comments made on social media, even if made from the chamber precincts, are not covered by parliamentary privilege. While I cannot reasonably adjudicate on members’ private communications, I remind members they should have regard to the perceptions the wider community will have of any comment that is made by them, including via social media. They should also be conscious of their relationships with other members and seek to have a level of discourse that enables civil relationships to be maintained between members.
Finally, I inform the House that any use of social media by members reflecting on any occupant of the chair that comes to my attention, would be dealt with as any other comment made outside the House that reflects on the chair: as an important matter of order. I thank you for your attention.
On 27 February 2014, the House Procedure Committee commenced an inquiry into the use of electronic devices in the House of Representatives Chamber and Federation Chamber. The move followed the introduction by the Prime Minister of a strict edict to Coalition staffers not to engage in political commentary on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.
The committee's chairman, Don Randall MP (Liberal) said ‘it was necessary to review how MPs use mobile phones and other electronic devices’. The Committee considered it was timely to examine the regulatory framework on the use of electronic devices by Members in the House of Representatives Chamber and the Federation Chamber.
Submissions were received from Hon Christopher Pyne MP, Leader of the House; Mr David Elder, Clerk of the House of Representatives; Shadow Attorney-General Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP, and Mr Tim Watts MP (ALP).
The report was tabled on 24 September 2014. The Committee recommended that the House consider and adopt a resolution in the following terms:
That the House:
1. permits Members’ use of electronic devices in the Chamber, Federation Chamber and committees, provided that:
a. use of any device should avoid interference or distraction to other Members, either visually or audibly, and should not interfere with proceedings – in particular, phone calls are not permitted and devices should be operated in silent mode
b. devices are not permitted to record the proceedings (either by audio or visual means)
c. communication on social media regarding private meetings of committees or in camera hearings will be considered a potential breach of privilege
d. use of devices should be as unobtrusive as possible and should be directly related to the Members’ parliamentary duties; and
a. that communication via electronic devices, whether in the Chamber or not, is unlikely to be covered by parliamentary privilege; and
b. reflections on the Chair by Members made on social media may be treated as matters of order just as any such reflections made inside or outside the Chamber.
In short, the issue has not yet been settled.