Breath Tests Demanded for Australian Legislators

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Australian newspapers, and some members of Parliament, called this month for legislators there to be subjected to periodic breath tests.  The calls were prompted by a series of incidents in which drunken legislators have embarrassed themselves and the government.

Most recently, a New South Wales MP, Andrew Fraser, was forced to resign from a leadership post after he shoved a female colleague during an argument at a Christmas party.  (Fraser had been suspended in 2005 "after chasing a minister around the chamber and grabbing him by the shirt.")  The Christmas incident followed one in September in which another minister resigned "after allegedly dancing in his underpants at a drunken party in his parliamentary office."  See "Underpants minister loses job," BBC News (Sept. 11, 2008).

The BBC report of that incident is worth quoting:

Reports of the raucous party in Mr Brown's Parliament House office, surfacing in local newspapers, alleged the minister had danced in "very brief" underpants to techno music on a green couch. . . . Initially Mr Brown said nothing untoward had happened at the party. But his boss, Premier Rees, was not so sure.

"I subsequently put it to former minister Brown late last night [Rees was quoted as saying] that there are 'too many reports of you in your underwear for me to ignore.' He conceded he'd been in his underwear and that gave me no option but to demand his resignation."

The debacles of the Underpants Minister and the Christmas Lady-Pusher, both alcohol-related, led to the breathalyzer suggestions.  "Honestly, if you are going to have breathalysers for people driving cranes you should have breathalysers for people writing laws," said a Green Party MP.  People who drive cranes (and other stuff) agreed.  "All rail workers are subjected to random drug and alcohol tests, an infringement on their personal lives that they are told is necessary due to the safety-critical nature of their work," said a representative of the Rail, Bus and Tram Union.  "But driving the state is every bit as safety-critical, and decisions our politicians make on issues as diverse as health, education and transport policy do affect public lives."

The Daily Telegraph used fewer words to express its opinion, running a headline reading: "BREATH TEST THIS MOB."

Whether breathalyzers would be put in next to the ministers' voting buttons, of course, would be up to the ministers, and this seems like one of those things that they all support in theory but might not quite find time to get around to during the legislative session.  Richard Torbay, the speaker of Parliament, said he would have no problem with the idea as long as the tests were "voluntary," which of course defeats the purpose.  "I think it is important," he said, "to establish high standards that the community expects."  Actually, the community may not expect too much at this point.  It might be satisfied with fewer fights and less revealing underpants.

Link: BBC News (Dec. 4, 2008)