From the Archives, 1955: Parliament finds newspaper men guilty of contempt

In June 1955, a journalist and a newspaper owner were summoned to appear before the Bar of the House of Representatives after the House found them guilty of a charge of serious breach of privilege against a sitting member. The decision to imprison them for three months was made the next day by the House after a debate lasting almost five hours. The appearance of the two men at the Bar of the House, and the sentence passed, were both without precedent in the Federal Parliament.

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First published in The Age on June 10, 1955


Serious Breach of Privilege

CANBERRA, Thursday. – Mr. R. E. Fitzpatrick, contractor, of Bankstown, and Mr. F. C. Browne, a Sydney journalist, have been summoned to appear before the Bar of the House of Representatives at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

The Serjeant-at-Arms, Jack Pettifer (left) escorts Frank Browne (wearing spectacles) and Raymond Fitzpatrick (in front) from King’s Hall, Parliament House, after the House of Representatives had ordered that they be imprisoned for three months. Credit: The Age Archives

The House today found the two men guilty of serious breach of privilege.

The House summoned them before it to give them an opportunity of saying anything they wished to in mitigation of their offence before deciding on a proper penalty.

The action taken is without precedent in the Federal Parliament.

The decision was reached on a motion by the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies).

Mr. Menzies described attacks made in Mr. Fitzpatrlck’s newspaper, the Bankstown “Observer,” and written by Mr. Browne, against Mr. Morgan (Lab., N.S.W.), as the “high water-mark of wicked cynicism.”

Government members tonight were pressing for the imposition of a gaol sentence on the two men.

It was claimed that the Commonwealth has power to inflict a prison sentence on a charge of breach of privilege but not a power to inflict a fine.

If this is so, the only alternative to a prison sentence would be to admonish the guilty parties and to accept an unqualified apology from them.

Government members were adamant tonight that the charges were of so serious a nature that an apology at the Bar of the House would not be sufficient punishment.

Writer Frank Browne, returns home to Dover Heights, Sydney, after being jailed for contempt of ParliamentCredit: Kerry Redshaw

The Labor party will not make any decision on a penalty until it hears the motion on the sentence to be inflicted put forward by the Prime Minister (Mr Menzies)

A number of Labor members tonight were known to favor a heavy fine, £5000 being the sum mentioned in each case, if it could be established that a fine was a permissible alternative.

If the Labor party should oppose a prison sentence on principle, it will mean a vote on party lines, something Mr. Menzies is known to be anxious to avoid.

It was claimed in the lobbies tonight that the Government’s decision would be final and Commonwealth legal authorities were quoted as stating that no appeal would lie from the sentence. However, an effort to test this by moving for an appeal to the High Court is considered certain to follow whatever action is taken, and Messrs. Fitzpatrick and Browne have already briefed Sir Garfield Barwick and Mr. Shand, Q.C.’s, to protect their interests.

Neither man will be allowed legal representation at the Bar of the House, and if they fail to appear they can be sentenced in their absence.

The Commonwealth Parliament has no precedent of its own to follow in the present case and intends following precedents established by the House of Commons, which it is empowered to do under Section 49 of the Constitution.

The deputy director or the Commonwealth Investigation service (Mr J. M. Davis) flew from Canberra to Sydney tonight to serve notices on Messrs. Fitzpatrick and Browne to appear before the Bar of the House at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

Mr. Davis left Canberra almost immediately after the Speaker (Mr. Cameron) signed the notices. The notices, which were addressed to Mr. Raymond Edward Fltzpatrick, Chapel Road, Bankstown, and Mr. Frank Courtney Browne, Lancaster Road, Dover Heights, read:

“Take notice that the House of Representatives this day adopted a resolution in the following terms: “That Raymond E. Fitzpatrick and Frank C. Browne be notified that at 10 a.m. tomorrow the House will hear them at the Bar before proceeding to decide what action it will take in respect of their breaches of privilege.”

First published in The Age on June 11, 1955


Habeas Corpus Writ to be Argued Wednesday

CANBERRA, Friday. – Legal moves to obtain the immediate release of R. E. Fitzpatrick and F. C. Browne, imprisoned today by resolution of the House of Representatives for a serious breach of privilege, failed early tonight.

Mr. Justice Simpson of the A.C.T. Supreme Court refused to grant an immediate writ of Habeas Corpus when application was made by Mr. Shand, Q.C., and Mr. A. F. Mason, legal representatives for the two men, shortly after they had been imprisoned.

He granted an order nisi returnable on Wednesday calling on the Acting Commissioner of Police (Inspector Richards) to show cause why he should not release both men.

Fitzpatrick and Browne will remain in Canberra lock-up until Wednesday, but the Government has made arrangements to commit them to a Victorian prison if their sentences of three months have to be served.

Mr. Shand and Mr. Mason made their application in chambers. They claimed that Parliament did not have power to inflict the term of imprisonment as there had been no breach of privilege.

If their case fails in the A.C.T. Supreme Court, an immediate appeal will be made to the Full High Court.

It was stated today that it was intended to take the case to the Privy Council if an appeal to the High Court failed.

The committal to prison of Fitzpatrick and Browne came at the end of a long and tense debate in the House of Representatives following the appearance of the two men before the Bar of the House.

While in the Canberra lock-up Fitzpatrick and Browne will eat meals served from the Hotel Civic, which is situated opposite the local police station.

Browne telephoned his wife before noon today, informing her of the likelihood of his committal to prison, and she left Sydney by air later and visited her husband at the police station.

She will be allowed to visit him for 15 minutes a day while he is in Canberra.

Fitzpatrick seemed stunned by his sentence when he was escorted from Parliament House by Commonwealth peace officers and officers of the Commonwealth Investigation Service.

Dramatic Five-hour Debate

The decision to imprison Fitzpatrick and Browne was made by the House of Representatives after a debate of extraordinary tenseness and drama lasting almost five hours.

Both the appearance of the two men at the Bar of the House and the sentence passed were without precedent in the Federal Parliament.

Fitzpatrick, 45 years, contractor, of Bankstown, Sydney, and Browne, 39 years, of Dover Heights, Sydney, were alleged to have attempted to silence Mr. Morgan (Lab., N.S.W.), a Sydney lawyer, by means of articles in the Bankstown “Observer,” a paper owned by Fitzpatrick and edited by Browne.

The decision to imprison them was not unanimous. The motion for committal to prison was carried by 55 votes to 12 in the case of Fitzpatrick, and by 55 votes to 11 in the case of Browne.

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