Yes, I hate it, too, when someone says that I told you so, so I can only ask forgiveness for setting out below parts of a post about Dyson Heydon and Rupert Murdoch in December 2014. Eighteen months and, say, $40 million or so ago.
Dyson Heydon has now in my opinion made a fool of himself with remarks about two Labor leaders.
The dinner address farce does not prove the point – it just illustrates it. If you want to know the full extent of the poison for our judges, just look at the beginning of the piece on the front page of The Australian by one of Abbott’s closest supporters, Dennis Shanahan:
Tony Abbott’s sharpest weapon against Bill Shorten has been blunted. Any findings of the trade union royal commission which reflect badly on the Opposition Leader’s behaviour while running the AWU have been tainted.
If you missed the point, you have the headline on page 6:
Bad judgment leaves the PM shooting blanks.
The sheer vulgarity and nastiness of it all defies belief. And I cannot see why there is all the fuss about a fundraiser. Is it not enough that he is accepting invitations from the political party that got him to shaft the political party opposite them? The Attorney as usual got it all wrong. He has some experience here. He presented the address in 2010. And billed us $1000 expenses for the privilege.
So what next?
Bomb more Muslems – bomb Syria. That should take us out of ourselves.
(If you want to know what the PM thinks about foreign policy, go to Greg Sheridan:
The PM has a strong inclination to confront and defeat Islamic State, but he also has a deeper strategic purpose. That is to stiffen the resolve of the Americans. This is a common strategic view among Western leaders, that the Americans need to do more and be more decisive, but that they cannot be easily persuaded to do more.
So, that is what our leader seeks to achieve by bombing Muslems – to put some steel into Uncle Sam. This is pure Alice in Wonderland.)
And now we see another reason why Heydon should not have got involved in this political hit job. He might get sued. While conducting various proceedings over nearly thirty years, I have been sued in most courts in the land – I am not talking of appeals but of being taken to court to get my process stopped – and it is water off a duck’s back. But I have never had the backing of the Act of Settlement, and I have never worn ermine. If I go down, I do so alone.
That is not the case here. The government is still trumpeting Heydon’s High Court credentials. Well, there are plenty out there with standing to sue him. For all I know, Heydon presently has before him a letter alleging bias and asking for an undertaking that proceedings before the Commission will cease until the issue has been determined by the courts – including, perhaps, the High Court. Heydon is one name that you would not want mention up there just now.
The nature of the problem, that is way over the pay level of this government, is further discussed below.
When Dyson met Rupert – and the High Court of Australia beheld the gutter
It is not likely that Mr John Setka of the CFMEU has ever felt the need to tell a journalist that that he has often felt the need to express his dissent in the minutes of the union because he did not like the writing style of the other organizers and officers of the union – that he does, for example, have a real aversion to split infinitives, dangling participles, or a perceptible but unwarranted variation in the number of a noun that some others tolerate to avoid treading on the toes of those who get exercised over what is called sexism. These are some of the things that Mr Dyson Heydon, QC discussed on the ABC when reflecting on his time as a justice of the High Court of Australia. That court is our highest court, and by and large its members have served us well. It is a reputation devoutly to be preserved.
There was always going to be a problem in Mr Heydon continuing to do just that when he accepted the invitation of the current Prime Minister to go down into the world of Mr Setka and the phantoms of the enemies of Julia Gillard, the outgoing PM, and our first woman PM. Julia Gillard had been targeted by members of the press, especially the Murdoch press, about allegations of what had passed between her as a solicitor and a boyfriend twenty years ago. Yes, you heard – twenty years ago; more than three times longer than the standard limitation period fixed by the law for permitting civil claims to be raised.
The employees of Mr Murdoch, and their unattractive political sponsors like Senators Abetz and Brandis, to this day put their hands on their heart and say that they have pursued this issue in the public interest because what Julia Gillard did twenty years ago reflects on her fitness to hold office as Prime Minister. Well, if they are prepared to say that with a straight face, they will also be the shrillest in objecting to any suggestion that this kind of personal denigration could only have been wrought on a woman. However that may be, the attack on Julia Gillard, especially after she had lost office, appeared to many Australians to reach new lows, even by our standards, of partisan political bitchiness and moral vacuity in Canberra.
The CFMEU is what is called a militant trade union. It has succeeded to the position of the BLF as the Aunt Sally of choice for hardened and unlovely champions of the class war like Senators Abetz and Brandis. The public inquiry headed by Mr Heydon, and named after him, was predictably branded as a witch hunt, and we have no problem in imagining what the reprisals will be like, but it was always hard to see how anyone like Mr Heydon could get down into this gutter and come out with a reputation enhanced, or even preserved.
Mr Heydon has impeccable credentials as a member of the Establishment, or at least as close as Sydney can get to any such thing. He was educated at Shore School before going on to win the University Medal at Sydney University. He was a Rhodes Scholar – well the whole nation is coming to terms with the fool’s gold that that distinction may hide – but his winning the Vinerian Prize at Oxford is a good sign of a very bright and concentrated academic mind, if not a driven one.
Whether that can translate into good judgment and common sense is another question, especially when those early academic prizes are followed by the active pursuit of an academic career. Mr Heydon was a Fellow of Keble College Oxford before becoming a professor in Sydney and the Dean of the Law School. He is the author of works in the wantonly superior and acerbic style that some elevated lawyers in Sydney appear to find satisfying. He never sat as a trial judge, being appointed straight to a court of appeal and then to the High Court. I do not know if he ever appeared in a criminal trial or before a jury.
Mr Heydon was happy to tell those listening to the ABC that he wears as a badge of honour the title of conservative black letter lawyer. He acknowledged that others regard that term as an insult. Mr Heydon is not therefore averse to taking sides, and being seen to do so. South of the Murray, the Sydney black letter lawyers, the ‘whisperers’, are thought to have tickets on themselves and to be too brittle for their own good. Some of the sniping that they engage in looks downright bitchy, and you can see it in print, and in works that assert claims to scholarly merit. They can engage in behaviour that looks anything but conservative.
By the time his time on High Court had expired, Justice Heydon had become a compulsive dissenter, and he could express his views in language that was at best curious. In the case about packaging cigarettes, his Honour said:
After a ‘great’ constitutional case, the tumult and the shouting dies. The captains and the kings depart. Or at least the captains do; the Queen in Parliament remains forever. Solicitors-General go. New Solicitors-General come. This world is transitory. But some things never change. The flame of the Commonwealth’s hatred for that beneficial constitutional guarantee, s. 51 (xxxi) , may flicker, but it will not die. That is why it is eternally important to ensure that that flame does not start a destructive blaze.
Putting to one side the imputation to a polity of a visceral emotion, which would have entertained medieval Schoolmen, is this what we expect from the justices in our ultimate constitutional court – to speak of the hatred of the Commonwealth of a part of the Commonwealth Constitution? What do these people do to each other up there is that bleak suburban fastness of Canberra? What sort of masonry lies buried here? Where is the calm repose of the dispassionate jurist?
Mr Heydon was appointed to the High Court by Prime Minister John Howard, who is the mentor of the Prime Minister who appointed him to conduct this royal commission. This could be called keeping it in the family, although few Australians will reflect with equanimity on the suggestion of Mr Abbott that he is the political love child of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop.
The government was aware that its bona fides were in issue – to put it softly – in this royal commission. They had to find a safe pair of hands, a man beyond reproach. How could you do better and more safely than with a former High Court judge who glories in his black letter conservatism? All that would have been enough for a government that puts slogans where thinking should be, and which puts political advantage over principle.
Well, it was never likely that Mr Heydon would, like Sir Garfield Barwick, be described as the hit man of the Establishment, but there were obvious difficulties in his appointment to this political task. With the best will in the world, Mr Heydon would have no idea of the world of people like Mr John Setka or Ms Kathy Jackson of the Health Services Union. You do not learn about them at Shore or Keble College, Oxford. You might as well ask Mr Setka to give advice to Mr Heydon’s club in Sydney, the Australian Club, on the etiquette surrounding the inviting of ladies to lunch at that club. (You don’t.) It is not as if Mr Heydon has spent time knocking back beers at a South Sydney boozer talking to people with pictures on their arms and with a bit of previous in their cupboards about the contribution of the blackfellas to the latest flag of the Bunnies. This is one factor in appearances when appearances count. It rather savours of two of the chaps from Oxford getting together to advance the interests of those who share their view of the world over the interests of those who are not so well off. Put differently, what member of the CFMEU or any other union target could give a bugger what somebody like Dyson Heydon, QC said about them? This is not just class that we speak of – it is caste.
But it was not just the sheltered, cloistered upbringing of Mr Heydon that made this appointment inappropriate – it was his lack of experience as a trial judge. Royal commissioners are not judges and they do not exercise a judicial function. They are part-time public servants conducting an inquiry and they are anything but independent of those who give them the job. But it is useful in many contentious inquiries to appoint someone who has judicial or at least forensic experience in determining issues of fact arising from conflicts between witnesses, and to do so with a person who is as distant from the fray as possible. Neither of those ends was achieved here.
Nor would Mr Heydon have the faintest idea of what might be involved in running the office of a solicitor, which was at the heart of the query about Julia Gillard and her boyfriend. Had Mr Heydon ever practised as a solicitor, it is inherently unlikely that a firm of which he was a member would have acted for a union, let alone one as punchy as the CFMEU. But even if he had acted as a solicitor for the big end of town, he would have been able to smile in a more informed way on some of the more banal suggestions about the conduct of Julia Gillard as a solicitor. They were and are being made by people who do not know what they are talking about.
When judges are sitting in court, they observe a fiction that says that they are not affected by what they read in newspapers, but it must have been apparent to Mr Heydon that the job he was being asked to do had more wrinkles than my aging kelpy cross. Most Australian lawyers know the kind of juristic mayhem that can flow when the industrial and criminal laws combine. There are two words that cause veils to descend over people’s eyes when they are mentioned in an Australian court – one is tax; the other is industrial.
The BLF kept fighting lawyers (including me) in feed for more than a generation. A rogue outfit like the BLF pushes the legal system beyond its snapping point. Judges find themselves saying things that they instantly regret, but they feel provoked and pushed. The BLF provoked a Labor government to pass a law of proscription and annihilation that would have made Adolf Hitler blush. But what appeared to be the case to someone who had got to act on both sides of a long running kind of civil war was that the more that governments lashed out at those in charge of these outfits, the more thoroughly were their members locked in behind them. You get a similar reaction if you say something rude about the Collingwood Football Club. Class and faith (bigotry) are as thick as blood.
And was there not something just downright bloody unseemly about getting a former High Court judge to inquire into the conduct of a former Prime Minister as a solicitor more than twenty years ago, and after her time in office had expired? Is this really all that the people of Australia can expect from those who claim the right to run this bloody country?
A royal commission, as the name suggests, is a manifestation of royal power. Her Majesty, through her advisers and officers, good monarchists all down here, is proceeding against her Australian subjects, named or otherwise, to achieve a political objective. The Domesday Book was a good case. The Queen is in a way going against or sending against some of her subjects. All of her ancestors have promised not to do that ‘except by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land’ since clause 39 appeared in Magna Carta in 1215, but ancient rights must give way to current grubby political imperatives.
So, the Vinerian Scholar entered into this royal commission and into territory that would be less familiar to him than Mars – or the home of the South Sydney bunnies. He also came with a propensity to pedantic dissent from the mainstream, and a capacity to say things that put your teeth on edge. He looks like an unsettling nerd out of sync with the rest of us, a flat white made flesh, the lone Ranger sans Tonto, more of a protected species than a living national treasure.
And the main attack failed; the pursuit of Julia Gillard has been finally pronounced to have been what all but the bent or demented always believed it to have been. Mr Heydon said:
Findings are made that Julia Gillard did not commit any crime and was not aware of any criminality on the part of these union officials.
There was a time when a good trial judge would have just stopped there because he or she had just disposed of the relevant issue. But Mr Heydon went on to opine that part of her legal work ‘must be regarded as a lapse of professional judgment, but nothing more sinister.’
The introduction of the degree of comparison might suggest that in the opinion of the author, the error of judgment was in itself ‘sinister’. If you look that word up, you will get ‘prejudicial, unfavourable, darkly suspicious.’ Mr Heydon also used the lesser epithet of ‘questionable.’ Could it be that this long quest would just end with a question? How would it have gone down if a lesser lawyer, say a solicitor, had dared to question, en passant, Mr Heydon’s professional judgment as a barrister or judge?
Now all that kind of stuff is the staple of what passes for politics and journalism in this country – a less than elevating rough and ready blow by blow account of a shit fight. But that ugliness has been fed here by the lack of experience of this commissioner in trying controverted issues of fact. Mr Heydon is quoted in the press as saying:
Normally cross-examination of a non-expert witness is a contest between a professional expert who is familiar with every detail of the case and a relatively unwary member of the public who is not. But Julia Gillard had twenty years’ knowledge of the case and immense determination to vindicate her position. She was, so to speak, a professional expert on her own case.
Two reports in The Age quoted the same words, as if there was something wrong about them. There was. Mr Heydon, that is not how trial courts work. It may look that way to those in the proverbial ivory tower of Keble College Oxford or the High Court of Australia, but it is not what happens day to grinding day in any court in the land. The mystique of cross-examination is grossly over-rated, and as an artful technique it is nearly dead. You grope your way hoping not to get smacked or ambushed. The days when you are ‘familiar with every detail of the case’ do not happen often, if at all. If you have to listen to others do it, you try to help them reach the point, and sometimes just watch as people go over the precipice; you have to help them reach the point, because other litigants are waiting their chance to get this job done so that they can get on with their lives. Sir John Starke was the leading cross-examiner of his day, and he told me, more than once, that he always felt relief if when he sat down he was no worse off than when he started.
All that, apparently, has not been the experience of Mr Heydon, QC. We are not talking about what some call the sporting theory of justice. Rather, Mr Heydon looks on cross-examination as a kind of dressage contest where points are awarded for form, deportment, and style. The problem with treating the witness box as the scene of sport or even a contest is that the white hats may not do as well as the black hats. The black hats normally have the money behind them.
What Mr Heydon appears to be talking about is not cross-examination but the ghastly ersatz routine that is killing it. Counsel charge a fortune to read anything they can lay their hands on. They then bring their computer or wheelbarrow to court, smile wanly at the witness, and say; ‘Now, Sunshine, you and I are going on a little journey.’ They then proceed to circumnavigate the world, mostly to no effect, except to enhance their bank balance. Documents are flagged or tabbed to act as prompts or cues, and you neither see nor hear any real cross-examination at all. The process is tailor-made for the novice at one end and the truth-dodger and game-player at the other. We saw it all on live TV at the Leveson Inquiry. It was a boring as it was fruitless. I wonder if in truth Mr Heydon has ever seen a witness cross-examined at all.
I have tried to set out the reasons why I do not think that Mr Heydon was the right lawyer to conduct this inquiry, quite apart from his previous position as a High Court judge. He is too remote from the world and he has not had enough experience in resolving issues at first hand. These reasons were apparent to those advising the government, but they nevertheless went ahead, and Mr Heydon, perhaps from a misplaced sense of noblesse oblige, acceded to their request. It is difficult to avoid the inference that the government chose to go ahead with the appointment in spite of all the difficulties because they were set upon giving to their inquiry the gloss of the seal – the cachet, if you prefer – of the High Court of Australia – and there you have the whole bloody problem. We have drawn the courts, and our best one, into the political gutter.
A distinguished English judge was the late Lord Devlin. (He was also considered to be the Rolls Royce of trial judges, and it was said that he retired early because he was sick of the dry sodality of appellate work.) Lord Devlin once made a remark to the effect that English governments forever showed the very high regard that they and the English people had for their judges by their so frequent attempts to impose upon the judges to help them out of a political spot by giving their name and office to the conduct of a sensitive public inquiry*. This is why sensible and decent courts forbid that practice. That ban should extend to retired judges because the danger of communal reputational damage is just the same.
It would be tart to say that mistakes of professional judgment have been made here, and of a quite sinister kind, but is not the ordinary Australian, perhaps if you like ‘the relatively unwary member of the public’, not just a little ashamed at what is going on here? An Australian, as it happens a woman, has reached the highest form of electoral office that this nation can bestow; she is then made the subject of a sustained scheme by one of the world’s most powerful press head-kickers to blacken her name and run her out of office; she then has to face the indignity of being subjected to a public trial and humiliation at the instance of political opponents whose want of principle and character, and commitment to our basic political tenets, are becoming daily more apparent; and then their nominated inquisitor acquits her of the charges gainst her, but just gives her a backhander to go on with? Why would any sane Australian tell their children or grandchildren to do anything other than stay as far away from that cess-pit as possible? What can we say to these people, apart from what that now famous Boston attorney said to Senator McCarthy: ‘Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?’
What did we Australians do to deserve this smutty little fiasco; more signally, what have we done to deserve these truly awful people who so truly believe that they are our ruling class?
*The actual words of Lord Devlin (The Judge, OUP, 1979, 9) were: ‘In our own country, the reputation of the judiciary for independence and impartiality is a national asset of such richness that one government after another tries to plunder it. This is a danger about which the judiciary itself has been too easy-going.’