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Justice, Politics and the Royal Commission Show

Dyson Heydon’s deliberations on whether or not he should stay at the helm of the Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC) after claims of apprehended bias are over. The former High Court Justice has dismissed the application from union lawyers and will continue in the role the Abbott Government appointed him to.

But the story it would seem is not yet over. The unions will consider a court appeal. The ALP, who stand to lose some political skin from the TURC, though probably not enough to lose the 2016 election, have decided that asking the Governor-General to remove Heydon is the way to go. It has been foreshadowed that the Australian Labor Party will couple this with attacks on the Liberal Party for their part in this situation, when parliament resumes from September 7.

In terms of principles of natural justice it is quite clear what should have happened in this instance. It is clear to almost anyone, except for the most wilfully blind supporters of the right side of politics that former Justice Heydon should have recused himself from further hearings of this commission. This would have blunted any attacks from Bill Shorten and the Labor Party. That Commissioner Heydon cancelled his appearance at the fundraiser at a later stage is irrelevant. The decision to say yes to attending the function in the first place says more than enough.

However, there is absolutely no case to say that the Royal Commission should not go ahead altogether. This is particularly the case now that the inquiry has been running for a number of months and is doing vital work, uncovering just how murky the world of industrial relations can be. Renewed calls from Labor for a police taskforce instead of the Royal Commission are a bit rich, considering they announced a commission of inquiry the topic of which similarly could have been examined by a special police body.

Back on the justice side of the equation, the Abbott Government could have used this opportunity to widen the terms of reference to include all forms of corrupt practices across institutions in the industrial relations space. If this had been done, then any squealing from the unions or the ALP about the continuation of the royal commission could have been met with derisory laughter, from both the Coalition and the electorate.

With an election less than a year away, it is worth a brief look at what the current state of affairs means for both the Coalition and Bill Shorten’s ALP.

The Coalition may gain a small amount of much needed political traction from the findings of the Royal Commission, particularly if there are further discoveries made about union activities during Bill Shorten’s time as a union representative. But it will not prove an electoral game-changer. A shift in electoral fortunes could only come from more substantive policy and political narrative changes made by the Abbott Government. That would have had to begin well before the people stopped listening. This critical point was likely reached more than 6 months ago.

The ALP is likely to suffer mildly as a result of future TURC hearings. There will be some more unease about the leadership of Bill Shorten, but the polls and the new rules around leadership challenges will make a change on that front almost an impossibility.

The Trade Union Royal Commission will not feature high on the list of reasons the Abbott Government will probably lose power in 2016. In fact to say it will be a feature at all is nonsense. This area of politics is generally one where most have a worldview firmly locked in on one side of the debate or the other.

There will be some more noise on this issue over the coming weeks, but it will likely not last. It is hard to sustain attacks on things which do not have wide appeal.

Australian politics will meander toward the next misstep or missteps. With every day we will get closer to the 2016 election. And the show that is the Trade Union Royal Commission will continue, with Dyson Heydon likely to remain in the chair.

The Difficult Art of Crime Reporting

Last night Q&A, the ABC panel show on politics and society broadcast live from Dandenong, a culturally diverse  area of Victoria, less than an hour from Melbourne. The city has a population of which approximately 56% were born overseas, from over 151 different nations. Further, just over half of the population that were born overseas hail from a non-English speaking background. So it was only natural that there would be some questions, aside from the usual talk of the major issues of the day about issues of ethnicity and culture and the intersection with basic  societal functions and phenomena.

How we deal with crime and the reporting of these unfortunate events is a very important issue and the Q&A discussion last night turned to the reporting of crime using the physically identifiable factors of those suspected of , or convicted of offences which we see daily in our news broadcasts.

The questioner last night asked:

I am an Australian citizen. Why is it that if I commit a crime the media identifies me by my parents’ country but as an Australian citizen?

Questions like this are often debated fiercely and are a polarising affair when talking about crime and those responsible for it and how it should be portrayed in the media.

Firstly, it is essential that there are different standards in the reporting of alleged criminal acts and of the criminals that are being and have been prosecuted by the courts.

Both of these parts of the process should not be held to the same standard, as being tough on the investigation and identification of criminals can impede the eventual prosecution of the alleged felon.

It seems reasonable and self-evident that the strict reporting of the appearance of a criminal suspect is an important way to aid the investigative process in the search for those criminals which cannot be captured while committing, or just after undertaking a criminal act.

To that end, journalists should be entirely free to report to the fullest extent possible, the colour of skin of a suspect in a crime and as much other identifiable characteristics as possible. This should include identifying possible ethnic backgrounds, providing that the information is based on realistic information and is applied to people of all skin colour, regardless of background.

Just as height, weight, eye colour, scars or other markings and clothing worn by alleged offenders matters in the investigation process, so too does the colour of skin and to not be able to freely report that would be a shame and hindrance to the resolution of criminal matters.

Where the ground is difficult in the reporting of crime is determining exactly what crimes by what individuals to focus on reporting. Balancing that depending on ethnicity and being proportional is difficult. Perhaps the best system for all media outlets to base criminal reporting on would be the seriousness and brutality of the crime as opposed to any other factor, while still again, in the investigative stages, being fully free to disclose identifiable characteristics.

Where the line should be drawn and where care should be taken to tread carefully is in mentioning the ethnic background or physical appearance of those who have been investigated and charged with criminal acts.

In this case, the skin colour or country of origin of the ancestors of an alleged criminal facing the justice process should not matter and does not need to be reported. Crime is crime and it transcends ethnicity and should not be used to unfairly single out any particular group.

So the reporting of crime is a difficult balancing act for the media, with the right to information in the investigation of crime being paramount. The identification of people charged with an offence should be where the background of the offender ceases to matter. It must be acknowledged that crime reporting is a difficult balancing act with limited time for news content to be determined based on the right of the public to know.

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