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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 20107

Mr McCLELLAND (9:18 PM) —The Prime Minister, in opening the Commonwealth Law Conference in Melbourne on 14 April this year, expressed his `great personal respect for the rule of law in our society'. This sentiment often wins rhetorical support from Howard government ministers; regrettably, respect for the rule of law, in particular for our courts, is often hard to discern in their actions. Indeed, in recent times it is fair to say that we have witnessed yet another pattern of behaviour from conservative politicians which undermines the rule of law.

Last month, after the former member for Oxley was found guilty in Queensland by a jury and was sentenced by a judge to a term of imprisonment, the member for Mackellar saw fit to accuse the Queensland courts of acting politically. Specifically, she described the former member as a `political prisoner'. Such baseless allegations can only undermine public confidence in the rule of law. That case is, of course, subject to an appeal, and the appeal will stand on its merits; nonetheless, the criticism of the Queensland judicial system must be regarded as inappropriate. More recently, the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs went on talkback radio to impugn the integrity of the Family Court in the eyes of Australians, after it ordered the release of five children from immigration detention. On two occasions, the minister accused the Family Court of giving special treatment to children of asylum seekers over Australian citizens. On 26 August he told John Laws:

One's not supposed to impute the integrity of judges in relation to these matters, but they seem to have a desire to be involved in dealing with these matters, and dealing with them quickly because they say people are in detention. But you know, we have many people who are convicted of offences who are sent to jail who sometimes have to wait until the courts are ready to deal with their appeals, and that can sometimes go for years. When you have them being heard within days ... many Australians would like to think that they could get their matters dealt with by the Family Court in the time frame that these matters seem to be dealt with.

Two days later, the minister told listeners of 2GB:

The primary concern I have is that there seems to have been a desire ... to deal with these issues on the part of some judges. The Family Court has a primary responsibility in dealing with matters relating to Australians and Australian taxpayers who foot the bill of the court. I don't know that we need to have the court clogged up with these issues as well. I thought it was remarkable that when a judge in the first instance made a decision that it was not in the best interests of the children to be released, given that they might have to depart again, it got before another court within weeks. I think a lot of Australians would like to think that if they had an issue before the courts that they would be dealt with as quickly as that.”

This is the very same minister who, in June last year, was asked by the Federal Court to explain his public attacks on the motives of judges of the court in migration matters.

On 22 August this year, the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Murray Gleeson, summarised well the responsibilities of politicians towards the courts, when he told the Australian Financial Review:

I think it's important from time to time to let the public know and to remind people active in politics that certain kinds of criticism of the court can undermine the independence of the judiciary and the level of public confidence in the judiciary. ... I don't kid myself that we can ever be free from political criticism. Indeed, people have the right to criticise us. My object is to put it into a proper perspective and to remind people that there are conventions of restraint that exist for an important public purpose and ought to be kept in mind. Conventions are frequently broken. But when that happens, I want to remind people that there is a cost involved.

Unfortunately, it is a cost that the current government—and in particular the current Attorney-General—seems all too willing to incur.