ROYAL COMMISSION UNION CORRUPTION
Commissioner Dyson Heydon during the 2014 Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption (Image: AAP/Oculi.com.au, Jeremy Piper)

Always look at the framing of issues by politicians and the media, as a good guide to what they want you to avoid thinking about.

In relation to the need for an independent inquiry into the allegations against Christian Porter, that framing — being pushed by both the government and a number of high-profile right-wing journalists — is that it’s a simple issue of law and order versus mob rule/trial by media/social media pile-on. Scott Morrison went so far as to suggest a refusal to call an inquiry was because “rule of law is essential for liberal democracies”.

In short, we’re supposed to think of the allegations against Christian Porter as another iteration of the culture wars in which woke mobs try to cancel conservatives — indeed, cancel democracy itself.

This one fits even more poorly than other self-serving narratives employed by politicians.

For a start, none of the proponents of “rule of law” have said anything about Christian Porter’s own repeated trashing of the rule of law which has marked his time as Attorney-General. The pages of The Australian and the Financial Review have featured few defences of the rule of law as Porter has tried to prosecute Bernard Collaery in secret, dragged out his trial, or stacked the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to the point of dysfunction.

Nor did they speak up when the government abused its power to call royal commissions by instituting vendettas against Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten via the pink batts and trade union royal commissions — the latter led, of course, by Dyson Heydon.

Nor was there much outcry about the illegal robodebt scheme — in which Christian Porter was front and centre, and for which he has refused to apologise.

But in any event, the proposed dichotomy — rule of law v a Twitter mob — is entirely fake.

There are precedents for governments referring themselves to an independent inquiry. The Hope investigation into the Combe-Ivanov affair in 1983 — complete with Mick Young standing down — proceeded merely on the basis of ASIO’s suspicions of David Combe. That inquiry, by Justice Robert Hope, certainly didn’t involve Combe having to prove his innocence.

And every royal commission into misconduct is predicated on the basis that existing regulatory or police investigations are inadequate to deal with a major injustice or policy problem — whether of institutional child abuse, abuse of people with disabilities, or the conduct of the financial services industry.

Were these inquiries an abrogation of the rule of law, a show trial of the participants? Was anyone required to prove their innocence? Were the men whose abuse and cover-ups of abuse were exposed by the royal commission into institutional child abuse victims of a witch hunt? Hardly. Scott Morrison called the royal commission into the abuse of people with disabilities himself.

For that matter, any advocate of the rule of law should insist that the office of attorney-general carries special responsibilities. They should insist that its holder, the first law officer, should be required to have an integrity even greater than that required of their colleagues, given — as Porter himself was in relation to Peter Dutton — they may be required to give potentially damaging advice about them.

Right now Australia doesn’t have such a person — certainly not with acting attorney-general the risible Michaelia Cash, whose contribution to the law consists of refusing to cooperate with an investigation of the misconduct of her office. Again, none of the “rule of law” crowd voiced any concerns about that interim appointment.

But then the “rule of law” is — much like “free speech” is for the same types — something that is only to be stoutly defended when convenient, but readily trampled if it gets in the way of political objectives.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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