In an opinion attacking Victoria’s Human Rights Charter, the then High Court Justice Dyson Heydon compared human rights to narcotics:
The odour of human rights sanctity is sweet and addictive. It is a comforting drug stronger than poppy or mandragora or all the drowsy syrups of the world.
His Honour might as well have been writing about Coalition Ministers and the exercise of political power. From the moment the “adults took charge”, addiction took hold. They have spent political capital so frivolously maybe some Ministers believe they will only last one turn.
The Royal Commission debacle is a consequence of that compulsion. The idea was sound. The Royal Commission into “pink batts” would put the Rudd Government on trial, and the Commission into Union Corruption would try the organization. Apolitical judges would put beyond doubt Julia Gillard’s Home Renovations was funded by dirty money, Kevin Rudd killed people, and Bill Shorten’s power base might as well be the Australian mafia.
Three Labor leaders in the dock, and a Liberal lawyer’s speech night later, the entire enterprise is hopelessly discredited.
It did not have to be this way. The Coalition could have settled for one Royal Commission, but it had to be two.
George Brandis could have appointed a judge nobody had heard of, but it had to be the fellow with a Quadrant talk to his name. When Brandis called Heydon the “most eminent lawyer in Australia” he sounded more fan-boy than Attorney General.
The Commission could have ended in 2014, but Brandis extended it, insisting the “Australian people should be grateful to Mr Heydon for being prepared to make himself available…”.
So many chances to avoid disaster.
Nevertheless, when the story broke that Heydon had been slated to speak at a Liberal Party function, Brandis leapt to his defence on Lateline.
Brandis said the event was not a Liberal Party event. This was contradicted by little clues on the event flyer, like the Liberal Party logo. He said it was not a fundraiser. He was again foiled by the flyer. He said it was a public lecture, although the media could not attend. Sadly, our Attorney General lacks a lawyer’s eye for the blatantly obvious.
The unapologetic exercise of power for partisan ends is not unique to Brandis. His Coalition comrades enjoy exercising power for personal or partisan interests, and when attacked are indignant.
The classic example is Tony Abbott knighting Prince Phillip. I remember my housemate asking why? I answered: “The same reason you dress your Maltese-cross in a bee costume; he’s eccentric and he can”. My house-mate, however, was responsible for the Internet not the future of our share-house. Eccentricity is health when dealing with telcos.
The examples are plentiful. Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison spent months indulging in personal attacks on Gillian Triggs. Successfully elevating the Human Rights Commission president from Gillian-who, to Australian of the Year material.
George Brandis co-opted a portion of arts funding to distribute to his preferred arts. Successfully turning arts funding into an issue people actually read about and feel things about. He spent political capital on the opera.
Peter Dutton marched into cabinet demanding all the power to strip citizenship. Rebuffed, he marched back in with a proposal that citizenship be lost “automatically” based on a bureaucrat’s advice, rubber-stamped by the Minister. Cabinet and constitutional experts remain unimpressed. The community is just confused.
Even this week, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison went back to their already overdrawn political capital bank, and asked for a loan to put same-sex marriage to a referendum. A referendum requires a majority of votes in a majority of states. Sure, most Australians are indifferent to marriage equality, but do they want to enshrine it in the Constitution? Would the left split between the pro-marriage and anti-marriage camp?
A clever devious scheme, but a pitiful waste of power. You have to ask: can’t they find a better cause to engage in such bastardry than same-sex marriage? Gay people already co-habitat, and discrimination against gay couples has been rejected by the majority. The substantive battle is lost. Move on, don’t you guys have student unions to crush and or some other undergraduate score to settle?
For whatever reason they exercise power impulsively.
They cannot resist the desire to live out political fantasies whether it be conferring knighthoods, or re-writing the history curriculum as a retirement gift to Barry Spurr.
They lack any sense of delayed gratification. For example, ignore Gillian Triggs, watch her fade from public view, and you can quietly sack her in 2017.
They are incapable of moderation. Why not just appoint an unknown non-ideological to the Royal Commission and settle for a likely finding of some union corruption.
It does not really bother me – I’m a trendy-wendy latte sipping wanker. I’ve wanted them to fail from the beginning.
Nevertheless, it’s a cautionary tale. An election win isn’t a license to do whatever you want, or cash vendettas. Power is dangerous. Use it carefully. Indulge, and you might find yourself suffering a horrendous indignity: losing to Bill Shorten.
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