Speaker Bronwyn Bishop cut off a Labor attempt to question Tony Abbott about Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce’s intervention in the court case between Gina Rinehart and her children.
Bishop ruled out of order a question from Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon, who asked whether Abbott had counselled Joyce, who is agriculture minister and deputy leader of the Nationals, “that any personal intervention in similar court cases in the future would be inappropriate”.
Last week, Gina Rinehart lost a case run against her by two of her four children over control of a multi-billion dollar family trust.
Highlighting the pressure brought to bear by Rinehart to deter the plaintiffs from pursuing the case, the judge referred to Joyce on September 19, 2011, sending an email to Rinehart’s daughter Hope “calculated to dissuade her from continuing the litigation”.
In the email, Joyce, who was an opposition frontbencher at the time, wrote that he had not met Hope but “I have spent time in recent years with your mother and Ginny [the only one of her four children who supported Rinehart]”.
Joyce warned that “once the public interest starts looking into your private life then every mobile phone is one step away from you being on YouTube”.
Joyce advised: “All good families have their problems but before it gets really out of hand, I would try to get it back in house and out of public view”.
Hope had begun the case but reached a settlement in 2013.
After last week’s judgment, Rinehart’s son John Hancock launched an attack on Joyce. Hancock said that “coming from his government email I just think it’s extraordinary, and this character sits three chairs down from our prime minister”, he said. “I think it’s nothing short of dangerous and I would want to see exactly what communications he had prior to sending this email.”
In parliament, Labor contested Bishop’s ruling, saying she had made it before Fitzgibbon reached the part of his question referring to the ministerial code of conduct. Bishop declined to let Fitzgibbon reword it, ruling it out under the section of standing orders which says a minister can only be questioned on a matter for which he or she has responsibility.
Moving dissent from Bishop’s ruling, manager of opposition business Tony Burke said: “We have a ruling of a court reflecting on the behaviour of someone who is now a minister of the Crown. This is a significant issue which we have a right to discuss within the parliament.”
Leader of the House Christopher Pyne said Burke’s acting performance would make Laurence Olivier blush.
The dissent motion was lost on party lines.