Courier-Mail v Tony Fitzgerald: Murdoch tab lays down gauntlet
Former royal commissioner Tony Fitzgerald has criticsed Queensland Premier Campbell Newman and The Courier-Mail's pro-LNP bias and has been lambasted for his trouble, writes freelance journalist Alex Mitchell.
Tony Fitzgerald QC, author of the history-changing royal commission into Queensland corruption during Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s era, has suffered the fate of public figures who dare to cross the Murdoch media. After criticising the egregious pro-LNP political bias of Brisbane’s The Courier-Mail and Murdoch-favoured Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, Fitzgerald has received a public lashing for his trouble.
The Courier-Mail splashed a tirade against Fitzgerald on its front page at the weekend:
“Tony Fitzgerald has dramatically shifted from apolitical corruption fighter to partisan commentator, with a savage attack on the Newman Government. In an extraordinary 1169-word tirade, Mr Fitzgerald attacked almost every facet of the LNP administration, from alleged ‘nepotism’ to hospital staff conditions and even its record on protecting the Barrier Reef,”
The front-page illustration was a mock-up of the Fitzgerald Report delivered 25 years ago with the addition of gold-embossed words: “From famed apolitical corruption buster to partisan commentator — New Fitzgerald Report”.
Fitzgerald is a former Supreme Court judge whom Brisbane’s only daily once hailed as among the state’s most influential leaders of all time. But on June 28 he blotted his copybook with the News Corp club by issuing a rare public statement that included the assertion:
“Presently, Queensland is effectively a single-party state. The LNP has a huge parliamentary majority which it uses to dominate parliament and, outside parliament, News Corporation publications, which dominate the local print media, consistently publish biased reports which favour the government.”
He also accused Newman’s LNP government of having “flaunted its disdain for democracy and good governance by attacks on the judiciary and judicial independence, emasculation of the State’s anti-corruption commission and interference with the electoral system”.
Fitzgerald’s stern rebuke to the LNP government was barely mentioned in the next day’s News Corp papers. They were exclusively preoccupied with the tawdry toilet photograph of Sydney rugby league player Todd Carney, who was giving new meaning to the expression “selfie”.
In the wake of the LNP’s byelection catastrophe on July 19 in the Brisbane seat of Stafford (which Labor won with a whopping 18.6% swing), Newman delivered a grovelling public apology to Queensland voters for past failures and mistakes and vowed to do better in the lead-up to the next election, due to be held no later than June next year. However, Fitzgerald wasn’t satisfied with Newman’s promise to restore civil relations with the judiciary, and in a follow-up statement said the Premier’s mea culpa was “politically motivated” and “can’t possibly be regarded as sincere”.
Although he did not mention News Corp media in his second statement, it earned a counter-blast from last Saturday’s The Courier-Mail with the bizarre objection that Fitzgerald had no right to depart from the apolitical role he rightly practised when he was on the bench. But Fitzgerald’s judicial career ended in 2001; do News Corp operatives seriously believe every judge should be held to a lifetime oath of political silence? Tell that to Michael Kirby.
Even more bizarrely, the paper appeared to suggest that the retired judge was planning to transmogrify himself and become the state opposition:
“[S]enior Government sources told The Courier-Mail it was clear Mr Fitzgerald was positioning himself as the Opposition and had abandoned his apolitical stance.”
Newman is badly advised to be engaging in a public brawl with Fitzgerald. The former royal commissioner, Federal Court judge and president of the Queensland Court of Appeals remains a folk hero in the Sunshine State, where he stopped sand mining on Fraser Island in 1991 and has the status of an “untouchable”. He sees himself as the guardian of the reforms that cleansed Queensland’s legal, political and police structures after the corrupt Sir Joh era.
With Newman facing defeat in his own inner-Brisbane seat of Ashgrove — where barristers, solicitors, doctors, senior bureaucrats and their partners occupy most of the upmarket residential real estate — Fitzgerald, at 72, has nothing to lose by aggressively arguing against the restoration of White Shoe Brigade Inc comprising coal miners, rampaging developers and other spivs.
ALP politicians may be intimidated by the Murdoch press, but Fitzgerald remains unbowed.
*Alex Mitchell is a former state political editor with The Sun-Herald in Sydney and a former president of the NSW parliamentary press gallery.