Gay and lesbian community figures have joined with parliamentarians in condemning Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan for allegations he made in the Senate on Tuesday night against Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court.
Speaking in a nearly empty Senate chamber, Senator Heffernan alleged that Justice Kirby was not a fit and proper [person] to sit in judgment of people charged with sex offences against children, that he had misused his Comcar privileges and that he had used the services of young male prostitutes who worked The Wall in Darlinghurst.
Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convenor Alex Sosnov labelled the attack cowardly and unsubstantiated.
Senator Heffernan has hidden behind parliamentary privilege to vilify and assault Justice Kirby in a totally homophobic and slanderous manner, Sosnov said. [The Senator] has again drawn the incorrect and stereotypical association between gays and child abuse -“ yet the reality is, as reported by state and child welfare agencies, that child abuse is primarily abuse perpetrated by heterosexual men against young girls.
John Marsden, who faced allegations of paedophilia from Labor MLA Deirdre Grusovin (acting under parliamentary privilege) in 1994, told Sydney Star Observer that the incident was a case of d? vu.
It seems that this is the way to ruin any gay man in a position of power and influence, Marsden said.
Prominent community law-yer Peter Grogan told the Star that baseless allegations being aired in public against gay men would inhibit many from playing a role in public life.
Grogan paid homage to Justice Kirby’s outstanding international reputation. Very few, if any, Australians have had as significant impact on the cause of human rights for minorities in the world, he said.
Parliamentarians were swift to denounce Heffernan yesterday.
Australian Democrats Sena-tor Brian Greig told the Star that Heffernan must produce the evidence.
If he has evidence of grossly inappropriate or criminal behaviour against Justice Kirby, then it must be tabled and provided to the police, Greig said. If he does not have that evidence, if this is just a smear, then the Prime Minister must take swift action. At the very least Senator Heffernan should be stripped of his position. He should also be made to publicly apologise.
Liberal Member for Wentworth, Peter King, said parliamentary privilege should be used carefully at all times.
Any allegation of improper behaviour should be referred to the relevant authorities for proper investigation, King said. More broadly, I am concerned that there is a view among some in the community that there is a link between homosexuality and child sex abuse. Such suggestions are absurd and offensive.
Public officials and community leaders must ensure that discussion about the serious issue of child sex abuse is based on fact, not prejudice, King said.
Prime Minister John Howard told the House of Representatives yesterday that Senator Heffernan had stepped down from his position as Parliamentary Secre-tary to Cabinet while the allegations he had raised were assessed. However, several sources who spoke to the Star yesterday surmised that Heffernan must have been asked to step down from the position.
I know he holds views -¦ very deeply and very conscientiously, Prime Minister Howard said of Senator Heffer-nan, parroting comments he made in June last year when Senator Heffernan made allegations of child sex abuse against a prominent Aborigi-nal leader.
Kirby himself released a statement shortly before the Prime Minister’s speech.
Senator Heffernan’s homophobic accusations against me in the Senate are false and absurd, Justice Kirby said. If he has such accusations, he should approach the proper authorities, not slander a fellow citizen in Parliament. In so far as he attempts to interfere in the performance of my duties as a judge I reject the attempt utterly.
Although a right of reply provision for individuals exists in Senate procedures, it is not known whether Justice Kirby will take that course of action.
I dare say he would very much like the opportunity [to reply] but you’re getting into very tricky territory -¦ when you blur the lines of parliament and the judiciary, Senator Greig commented. I may be proven wrong but I suspect [Justice Kirby’s] integrity is too strong for him to give legitimacy to the claims of Heffernan by engaging in a parliamentary response.
Senator Heffernan’s speech has ignited debate about the issues of parliamentary responsibility and parliamentary privilege. Prime Minister Howard said the issue demonstrated the need for federal parliament to develop and adopt a protocol governing the receipt and investigation of serious complaints against federal judicial officers.
Reacting to a question today from Australian Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja, the acting President of the Senate, Sue West, confirmed that Senator Heffernan’s speech had contravened a standing order of Senate debate. Senator West found that Senator Heffernan had used offensive words against a judicial officer, but said he was not stopped from talking as the statements in question were not made until the end of the speech.
In announcing Senator Heffernan’s decision to step down from his Parliamentary Secretary position, Prime Minister Howard also revealed that the Senator had written to NSW Police Commissioner Peter Ryan, requesting that the allegations against Justice Kirby be further investigated.
In his letter, Senator Heffernan told the Commis-sioner he had previously provided information to NSW Police that related to the allegations he aired in the Senate. (In his Senate speech, Senator Heffernan claimed he had interviewed and obtained statutory declarations from men who worked the Wall as prostitutes.)
-¦ After some assessment of these matters by the NSW Police Service, I was advised by a senior officer that because the allegations provided in a police statement involved a person aged 17 years and 6 months, and although of serious concern for the police, there was no prosecution undertaken because in their assessment it would not meet the technical prosecution guidelines of the NSW DPP [Department of Public Prosecutions], Senator Heffernan wrote.
NSW Police Minister Michael Costa made similar comments to state parliament yesterday.
I am advised that police have previously investigated information provided to them by Senator Heffernan, Costa said. I am advised these investigations did not warrant the laying of any charges in connection with the matters recently raised by the Senator.