Liberal government speaks in praise of Justice Kirby!


Today’s ‘Great Legal Debate’ in the New South Wales theatrette was a wormless but hardly spineless affair.

Each speaker proved very much the child of the parent, Attorney Philip Ruddock echoing in his delivery that curious Howardesque quality of staid passion; and Shadow Attorney Nicola Roxon winning on the one-liners, with perhaps an own goal or two.

For the Attorney, the first thing in both opening and closing was not the law but the lawyer. Under a Howard government, he promised, the Attorney-General would continue as a senior cabinet member. Under Labor, he threatened, intelligence and terrorism matters would go to some ill-defined regime of homeland affairs.

Faced with the prospect of being demoted if she won, the Shadow Attorney reminded us that the Attorney-General was the nation’s first law officer. Such a person was not a defence counsel for the government, nor a risk manager for a CEO of some fairly conservative company.

In the openings, the Attorney got the better of it. He coasted over a number of issues “ cheekily flagging the Centenary House lease “ but isolated and enlarged on only three: family law, defamation and national professional reform.

The Shadow Attorney opened with an understandable assertion that matters legal ought be dealt with within a strong social justice framework, but then moved too quickly through the domestic agenda before getting to Mr Hicks. More on Mr Hicks later.

One concern of the Shadow Attorney’s is the tendering out of government legal work. Transparency on costs might result in the freeing up of millions for legal aid and community legal centres.

Where is the evidence of waste, the Attorney retorted?

I don’t know, Attorney. I’ve seen some bills from firms at the big end of town and they ain’t pretty. And I guess in our competitive legal world “ a world introduced by Labor, as I recall “ it is too late to debate why large-scale tendering out by government is desirable at all.

I think the republic got mentioned. Maybe the Shadow Attorney raced over it in the opening. But there wasn’t much else on that. A good thing, too. Leave it to the gaggle of lawyers standing for Wentworth.

The Bill of Rights didn’t get much of a guernsey either. For the Attorney, it meant unnecessary litigation, while the Shadow Attorney finessed neatly: there was no current plan, as everyone would be too busy with the repair work on human rights made necessary by the current government.

Women on the judiciary was a one-all affair. The Attorney, fresh from a couple of highly acclaimed appointments, was able to give a ‘see, it works’ thumbs-up to the party line: a judge must have the capacity and skills to adjudicate on complex legal issues and give judgments which are respected. For her part, his opponent said that we had nothing to fear from the Victorian experience, from wider advertising and for calling for expressions of interest.

On an Attorney-General’s role in defending the judiciary, the Shadow Attorney was piquant: it was all the more necessary because of the current Attorney’s sport with judges in his previous portfolio.

Remember pensions for judges? This was one of Mr Latham’s early political hits, and where the opposition has pledged to bring the superannuation position into line. Although, as the Shadow Attorney acknowledged, there would have to be a considerable pay adjustment. For the Attorney, the judges work hard, give up a lot, and are entitled to their current levels of financial security for their spouse.

Besides, the Attorney said, we have to see what the states do.

It’s always easy for a federal Attorney-General to take the ‘I’ll do it if the states co-operate’ line. The more so now, when all the states are Labor. That’s why defamation reform’s in trouble, the Attorney told us, it’s had to languish for more than twenty years, ever since Justice Kirby’s report 25 years ago.


Meanwhile, the Shadow Attorney noted that the only time in her six years in parliament that she had heard the Attorney support judges was in respect of their pensions. In something of an admission, the Attorney rejoined that he had just commended Justice Kirby for his work on the Law Reform Commission!

But then to Mr Hicks and Mr Habib. The war we are engaged in now is more insidious than previous wars, the Attorney told us. There are important issues, it seems, but we can’t be told about them.

The Shadow Attorney scored some direct Hicks-hits. A Labor Attorney-General would stand up for citizens here and abroad. Why is the government responding to matters about the trial now when they have been around for over 18 months? The Attorney is not telling the truth on this matter. The government patter on military law and international conventions is misinformation.

But whether or not the government’s position on Mr Hicks and Mr Habib gives new backbone to the word ‘spineless’, it’s doubtful how far Labor can stake out fresh ground here. Especially after throwing up the ‘retrospective law’ option, one which, unless my ears were blocked, wasn’t rejected by the Shadow Attorney today.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.