Brown Study

Brown Study

19 January 2013

Before joining in the universal adulation of the appointees to the Royal Commission into child abuse, let us reflect on two of them. First, I am probably in a minority of one, again, but I do not agree with the appointment of Mr Justice McClellan as head of the Commission. No doubt he is a good and experienced judge. But he happens to be the Chief Judge at Common Law of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and, hence, a serving judge. Royal Commissions and similar inquiries are no place for serving judges as, with the best will in the world, it is impossible to avoid the impression that the court is giving its approval to conclusions reached and recommendations made by the inquiry or that, at least, the court is lending its good name to the inquiry and its contentious work. It is for that reason that the judges of the Supreme Court of Victoria have always refused such appointments. It is odd that the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General, being Victorian lawyers, should be so indifferent to this sound Victorian tradition, particularly as the current Royal Commission will deal with very divisive issues that may have political implications: as one area that must come under scrutiny is the behaviour of state-owned institutions. Or are they only too aware of it? Perhaps the Victorian tradition may throw some light on the appointment of Patricia Coate, also a good and experienced judge, and the curious way news of her appointment was made public. Ms Gillard and Ms Roxon announced that Ms Coate’s claim to fame was that she was a Judge of the Family Court. Really? On the day of her appointment, she was listed on the website of the far more humble County Court of Victoria as being a judge of that court; but she was not, at that time, listed by the Family Court as one of its judges and apparently was not so. That may explain the Attorney-General’s odd way of expressing the appointment, that ‘Justice Coate has also now been appointed to the Family Court of Australia.’ ‘Now’? On the day she became a Royal Commissioner? Did Ms Roxon ask her Victorian counterpart to second Judge Coate to the Commonwealth for the three years of the inquiry and did he decline to do so? Did the Commonwealth then use the Family Court as a means of giving Ms Coate a bit more of a cachet? How did this appointment come to be made? Surely, the public importance of the Royal Commission warrants more than the bland explanation we have been given. And surely the Commonwealth should pause before trading on the reputation of independent courts before using them in this manner.

I don’t know if it is due to global warming, but the recent heatwave has coincided with another spate of irrational public demands that the opposition, meaning Mr Abbott, should announce an industrial relations policy providing for individual contracts of employment. I have explained here on several occasions just how politically foolish are these demands, but the advocates of this course of action apparently need to be told again. Rightly or wrongly, the expression ‘individual contracts’ will inevitably restart the old WorkChoices argument and that, in turn, will unleash a maelstrom of fear guaranteed to divert attention from areas where the government is vulnerable and give to vast numbers of voters an excuse for sticking with a discredited government they would rather consign to the scrapheap. In any event, what is the point of proposing a policy that requires an unlikely majority in the Senate? So the shadow minister, Senator Abetz, was right not to dignify this most recent outburst with a reply; the government and their acolytes in the union movement are already salivating at the prospect of another WorkChoices election and it would be suicide to give them more ammunition. It is pointless to antagonise and lose the votes of millions of workers who see WorkChoices behind every call for industrial relations reform; if workers are looking for anything, it is not individual contracts, but protection from avaricious and unscrupulous unions and their office-bearers, like Craig Thomson and Julia Gillard’s old friends from her salad days. If the young Turks want reform, they should advocate bringing unions under company laws, outlawing slush funds and giving union members the right to start class actions to recover illegal expenditure.

I am indebted to the Age for setting me straight on the evils of Rupert Murdoch and his reckless crusade ‘to erase the diversity of voices and hence the quality of our public debate’. In a prominent piece last week headlined ‘Murdoch’s culture wars’ and illustrated by a terrifying drawing, one of the Age’s contributing writers, Martin McKenzie-Murray, explained that Murdoch is threatening ‘the richness of the media landscape’. How is he doing this? Well, with a perverse desire to meet the needs of readers by providing the content they want, putting more news in the Wall Street Journal and promoting this policy although it has ‘more in common with John Howard than Marshall McLuhan’, whatever that may mean. I never cease to be amazed and saddened by the way the Age has drifted away from providing news people want and into a strange dreamland of causes of little interest to anyone but the people writing about them, while Fairfax staggers along with a shrinking circulation and a share price teetering on oblivion.

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