‘Falls short of a rational response’: Darwin lawyer says Gunner’s ban of NT Independent appears to breach code of conduct

by | Dec 4, 2020 | News | 3 comments

Pressure continues to mount on Chief Minister Michael Gunner to lift his ban on the NT Independent, after a member of the Darwin legal community joined a growing group of journalism and legal experts across the country calling for the ban to be rescinded, while suggesting the government has breached its own code of conduct.

Ward Keller partner Leon Loganathan said on ABC Radio Darwin Friday morning that the Gunner Government appeared to be breaching the MLA Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards Act, which mandates that all parliamentarians respect the freedom of the press and also respect the independence of the public service.

“What we’ve seen as the public is that the government isn’t doing that by excluding the NT Independent from participating in any meaningful way in holding the government to account,” he said.

“People have recognised that freedom of the press is an important tenet of democracy. If we sit back and take a laissez fair attitude to all of this, we’re heading down a slippery slope.”

The NT Independent has been banned by the Gunner Government from attending press conferences and receiving information from the NT public service since it began in March.

The MEAA, constitutional law experts, the Alliance for Journalists Freedom, the ABC’s Media Watch program and others have all called for the ban on the NT Independent to be lifted and for the Gunner Government to respect basic democratic principles.

Most recently, journalist Peter Greste, who was jailed in Egypt while on assignment with Al-Jazeera in 2013, called on the Gunner Government to lift the ban on the free press, stating that governments that do not answer questions in the public interest “undermine the essential transparency that makes our democracy work”.

Mr Loganathan said he felt compelled to come forward because he said the Darwin legal community should be aware of what is happening, and also called for the Law Society NT take take a position.

In a recent letter to Minister Natasha Fyles, who chairs the government’s disciplinary committee, Mr Loganathan said the ban brings the institutions of government “into disrepute”.

“By treating the NT Independent online newspaper differently to other media outlets the Government risks undermining democracy in the Northern Territory and bringing the institutions of government into disrepute,” Mr Loganathan wrote.

“We are concerned that the Government may be at risk of being in breach of clauses 10 and 11 of the Code [of Conduct and Ethical Standards Act].”

Mr Loganathan added that the government’s ban was disrespectful to the Rule of Law, was not demonstrating fairness and integrity in official decision making, was not respecting MLAs’ duties under the Code of Conduct to foster freedom of reporting and the independence of the public service and “not ensuring [the Chief Minister’s] decisions and actions are based on an honest, reasonable, and properly informed judgment about what will best advance the common good of the people of the Territory.”

Government controls body that would hold them accountable for breaches of the code of conduct

Mr Gunner and his communications director Maria Billias have repeatedly said they have banned the NT Independent from attending press conferences and instructed the public service not to release information to its reporters because “of the nature of the ownership” of the paper by local businessman Owen Pike, who was critical of government on a now shut down Facebook page.

Mr Loganathan said banning a paper that has editorial independence from its owner because a government doesn’t personally like the owner was a “ridiculous” argument.

“A wrong should not be dealt with by another wrong, especially the wrong of Government not observing freedom of the press in a western liberal democracy,” Mr Loganathan wrote. “If this was how the law operated there would be anarchy.

“There has been no evidence of improper reporting in the material of the NT Independent in its seven months of operation.

“Owen Pike is not the editor of the NT Independent and to ban media based on an ownership interest post falls short of a rational, proportionate or appropriate response.”

However, according to the Act, the only way an MLA can be held accountable for breaches of the code of conduct is to be referred to the Privileges Committee by the government – an unlikely scenario with Labor controlling the numbers in Parliament.

“The problem that we have here is that the breach is being done by the government, or members of the government,” Mr Loganathan said. “So, in order to bring this matter to the Privileges Committee, which is headed up by Natasha Fyles who is obviously a member of the government, the government is effectively going to be dobbing themselves in. I can’t see how this legislation is going to work in any meaningful way.”

Mr Gunner and all Labor MLAs did not respond to questions about the breaches of the Act.

Editor’s note: Neither Ward Keller nor Mr Loganathan act on behalf of the NT Independent. Mr Loganathan hosts a podcast in which this reporter appears weekly to discuss Northern Territory current affairs.

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