Last week, this column took note of the Barnett government’s attempt to introduce legislation removing “reasonable cause” provisions from laws governing the police’s stop ‘n’ search powers. Watching a democratically elected government use democratic freedoms as bonfire fuel is bad enough … but watching the Opposition fumble the ball on opposing them is simply excruciating.

Shadow Attorney-General John Quigley has been slapped with a gag from Labor leader Eric Ripper, after calling the Bill “fascist” last week. Quigley is a man who knows a thing or two about WA coppers’ need to be held accountable. After a legal career often spent in court defending members of the Police Union, Quigley and investigative journalist Colleen Egan secured the high-profile release from jail of one Andrew Mallard after he had spent 12 years in prison for the murder of Perth jeweller Pamela Lawrence.

In the subsequent public furore, it was revealed (among other things) that the mentally ill Mallard had been plied with marijuana by an undercover officer, bullied and threatened under interrogation and had evidence withheld from his defence team. Charges are now pending against senior police and DPP personnel for their conduct in the case, and an exonerated Mallard received a $3.75 million ex gratia payment from the state government in May.

So with that background behind him, you’d think that anyone with half a brain could see Quigley’s unique suitability to comment on laws pertaining to police accountability. Yet when it comes to policy, political and media issues, Ripper has proved that assumption spectacularly wrong.

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Quigley’s been told to cease and desist commenting on the laws, and instead hand responsibility for Labor’s defence of fundamental civil liberties to the Shadow Police spokeswoman Margaret Quirk. This the same Margaret Quirk who, as a minister, ignored three years’ worth of departmental and independent reports of the disgusting treatment of Aboriginal prisoners in remote WA by contractor GSL with fatal consequences. Aboriginal elder Mr Ward died when he was literally cooked to death in the prison van used to transport him from Laverton to Kalgoorlie.

Quirk’s response when queried on this point by the ABC’s Four Corners program was as pathetic as it was illuminating;

LIZ JACKSON: Why, why I mean you, you’ve told me that you’re aware that a prison administrator said he was waiting for a death to happen, you’ve told me you were aware that there was an urgent need to replace the fleet, and yet when it comes before cabinet in a boom time the request for money gets knocked back.

MARGARET QUIRK: Well I’ve thought about this in hindsight, ah um the, ah the fact that so much of this is recurring in remote regions of Western Australia means that maybe people weren’t aware of the um, issue as acutely as I was …

JACKSON: But it’s your job to make your cabinet colleagues aware of that.

QUIRK: Well yes but I’m one of 15 and no one personally ever said to me that there was likely to be a death in the van.

JACKSON: Well by 2007, you were aware of that, because Professor Harding had produced his report and he said that it was the situation with the air-conditioning breaking down was a potentially life-threatening situation, so you were (aware).

QUIRK: Well the report had a range of recommendations in it … and ah … the state’s north-west.

In simple terms, the WA ALP has to formulate and politically sell a public and policy position on excess police powers. So it’s gagged a Shadow A-G with experience and public credibility in judicial and police failure, and interchanged him for a minister of questionable value.

If the WA ALP was serious about governing again, Margaret Quirk wouldn’t even be in the Parliament, instead she’d be browsing the job ads. Questionable competence in government is one thing. But having a man die on your watch? What about ministerial accountability?

Yet Ripper and his brainstrust think she’s an appropriate MP, shadow police spokeperson and potential minister.

Now, more than ever, WA needs capable, effective and forceful Opposition. At the very least, it needs an Opposition that can challenge the Barnett government on its erosion of fundamental individual protections and civil liberties. And what are we getting? Spineless, clueless, and directionless dross, bereft of basic strategic insight and morally bankrupt.

WA Labor deserve nothing but contempt.

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