A proposal by the WA Liberal Party to require election candidates to pre-sign letters of resignation that can later be used to force them to quit would likely be a contempt of Parliament, according to the clerk of the Senate.
Liberal Senator Dean Smith sought the advice of the Senate clerk Richard Pye after The West Australian earlier this week revealed the idea would be considered by the party’s powerful State Executive on Saturday.
A motion drafted by Tim Houweling, chair of the party’s constitutional and drafting committee, makes the suggestion as part of broader plan to introduce a form of performance management for State and Federal MPs.
It states that if the WA Liberal State Council finds an MP is “not a fit and proper person” then “a letter of resignation will be held in escrow and may be tendered if the person refuses to resign from Parliament”.
Senator Smith sent The West’s report to Mr Pye, who replied there were two issues with the proposal, the first being that “the tendering of such a letter to the Senate President would almost certainly be ineffective”.
“The second is that such conduct would likely fall foul of the prohibition against improper influence of senators, which may be dealt with by the Senate as a contempt,” his response stated.
Mr Pye said the wording of the Australian constitution could only be taken to mean that a senator who wishes to resign must do so in writing, “not that someone else may submit a resignation against their will”.
“I cannot imagine a (Senate) president accepting the validity of a resignation letter in the circumstances described in the press report,” he wrote in the letter to Senator Smith, which was circulated by former WA Liberal leader Bill Hassell to party members.
“The other issue raised by the proposal is that it may amount to improper interference with a senator in undertaking parliamentary duties; conduct that may be dealt with by the Senate as a contempt.”
Mr Pye added: “In other words, purporting to direct a senator in the performance of their duties and holding over them the threatened submission of a resignation letter ‘if they refused to resign’ may well amount to a contempt of the Senate.”
This advice was consistent with a warning sent by criminal barrister Mark Trowell QC to Liberal State president Richard Wilson, State director Stuart Smith and party leader David Honey on Friday.
Mr Trowell, who last year authored a review of the party’s 2021 State election wipe-out, said the trio should be aware of “possible legal consequences” of the proposal, potentially including prison penalties.
“In my view, requiring an endorsed MP to sign an undated resignation letter is capable of being interpreted as exercising a threat or act of intimidation intended to influence that person in the effective discharge of their duties as a member of Parliament,” he wrote.