The government’s retirement gift to Philip Ruddock — appointing him Special Envoy for Human Rights — is a political joke of Abbottesque proportions. A short, non-definitive list of the highlights of Ruddock’s time in public office illustrates why.
As immigration minister in the Howard government, Ruddock was front and centre in the Howard government’s efforts to use the issue of asylum seekers as a political tool, and no more so than when he led the charge to falsely claim some had thrown their children overboard during a maritime rescue (see Ruddock making the claim here). “I regard these as some of the most disturbing practices that I have come across in the time I have been involved in public life,” Ruddock sanctimoniously asserted at the time, saying it was “clearly planned and premeditated”.
As it turned out, in fact it was clearly false. Ruddock has never apologised for misleading the public.
It was also in 2001 that Ruddock referred to a very sick child of asylum seekers as “it”, eloquently illustrating the systematic dehumanisation of asylum seekers that had been the policy of the Howard government. And remember that under Ruddock, the Immigration Department took its cue from the government and went feral. An Australian citizen, Vivian Solon, was deported to the Philippines in 2001 under Ruddock, and the department learnt in 2003 it had made an error while Ruddock was still minister, but did nothing.
Civil rights and free speech
It was as attorney-general that Ruddock launched his greatest attacks on human rights in Australia. In 2005 — an annus horribilis for systematic attacks on basic civil rights in Australia — he introduced counter-terrorism laws enabling preventative detention and control orders and ignored the Australian Law Reform Commission’s recommendation not to re-legislate the crime of sedition, meaning journalists and satirists potentially faced jail. And while the Howard government was eagerly exploiting terrorism for its own political purposes, it also whipped up a moral panic about the internet, during which Ruddock outlawed discussing euthanasia online.
Ruddock, terrorism expert
But it was to the War on Terror that Ruddock kept returning — and where he kept screwing up. In 2004, without any basis, Ruddock accused Australians Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks of being involved at a senior level in al-Qaeda, claiming “their involvement with those organisations [al-Qaeda] has been of a very significant order”. Again, Ruddock was wrong.
In 2001, Habib had been rendered by the United States to Egypt, where he was tortured. His interrogation was, according to an Egyptian intelligence officer, attended by an Australian official, but despite that, Ruddock — along with John Howard and Alexander Downer — claimed not to know the location of Habib at the time. Habib, after being released from Guantanamo Bay, to where he was transferred in 2005, sued the Australian government. The Gillard government contested Habib’s suit but very abruptly settled with him the moment he produced evidence that an Australian official had been in attendance while he was being interrogated.
The mishandling of David Hicks by Howard, Ruddock and Downer became one of the key controversies of the last, desperate Howard term in office. Ruddock might even have committed a war crime when he urged that Hicks be prosecuted by the United States’ badly rigged-up military commissions. The American military commission system was lauded by Ruddock, who as the country’s most senior law officer, said “what you are seeing in the United States is the proper operation of the rule of law”.
Wrong, yet again: a year later, the US Supreme Court overturned the entire military commission system, forcing the Americans to start over in their attempt to prosecute Hicks. Hicks later made an “Alford plea” plea bargain before a new military commission in order to escape the systematic abuse he had been subjected to at Guantanamo Bay. But in 2012, the US Court of Appeals ruled that the offence to which Hicks had made his Alford plea to didn’t exist at the time. Last year, Hicks’ conviction was set aside altogether by the US.
But it got better. Ruddock wanted Hicks prosecuted under the Howard government’s proceeds of crime legislation, saying “you can’t profit under Australian law from talking about criminal acts in which you have been engaged and we would seek to ensure that he would not be able to profit from any story that he sought to tell”. But when the Commonwealth eventually got around to prosecuting Hicks, the prosecution fell apart when Hicks revealed “new evidence” that forced the Commonwealth to drop its case and pay his legal costs.
Despite Ruddock fearleely claiming Habib and Hicks were both guilty of high-level terrorist activities, he turned out to be wrong every step of the way. And the then-attorney-general brought the same enthusiastically malignant stupidity to his response to the case of Muhamed Haneef, the victim of trumped-up and wholly false terrorist charges in 2007. When the innocent Haneef successfully sought bail, Ruddock attacked the decision and threatened to change the law to make it harder to get bail. When Haneef’s visa was cancelled by Kevin Andrews, Ruddock ardently defended the decision. Ruddock appears to reserve his silliest, most wildly inaccurate statement for attacking Muslims. He was at it again last year, smearing an Australian Muslim leader by claiming he had tried to justify the Paris attacks (and again with the sanctimony, piously declaring “I can’t let this pass” before utterly misrepresenting the views of the cleric).
Ruddock the progressive moderate
As attorney-general, Ruddock also led the charge against recognising overseas same-sex marriages, passing special legislation in 2004 to expressly prevent their recognition. He also blocked moves to extend pension rights to the partners of gay judges and criticised the then-HREOC report proposing equal entitlements for same-sex couples in 2007. And while Ruddock likes to parade as a dogged opponent of the death penalty, don’t forget he attacked Labor for being soft on terrorism for trying to include the issue in Australian Federal Police guidelines.
And we haven’t even covered Ruddock’s role on the parliamentary intelligence committee as one of the more clueless advocates of constant increases in security agency powers, who regularly berated any witnesses who dared to offered contrary evidence or reasoning.
There’s a pattern to Ruddock’s role in public life over the last two decades. He has serially been on the side of curbing the most basic rights of Australians, and serially wrong in his wild assertions about victims and critics of the Coalition’s anti-terror hysteria. His best contribution to public life will be leaving it, and if he ever goes near the UN Human Rights Council, he should be sitting with the Saudis, the Chinese and the Vietnamese, who currently degrade the body with their presence.