From the beginning, the Coalition government has shown an unhealthy disregard for the law, using it for political purposes when it suits them and ignoring it when it doesn’t.
One of their first acts in October 2013 was to launch a high court challenge to overturn the ACT’s recently enacted same sex marriage laws. The court ruled that states and territories did not have the right to overrule federal marriage law.
Yet when a citizen successfully litigated that the Commonwealth had no right to fund religious school chaplains in state schools, Christopher Pyne chose to bypass the ruling by giving the money to the states with the direction that it could not be used for secular welfare workers.
These were expensive exercises which ignored the will of the people and the intent of the law.
Then we had the saga of George Brandis’ refusing to fulfil a freedom of information request for his diary to see if he met with community legal aid stakeholders before making controversial cuts to the sector in the Coalition’s 2014 budget despite a Productivity Commission report that found it needed a huge boost in funds to meet growing demand.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal subsequently ruled Senator Brandis should process the request. He again refused, taking it to the Federal Court who also ruled he must hand it over. Eventually, after 1039 days and over $50,000 of public money wasted, Brandis finally handed over a heavily redacted copy of his diary.
Michaelia Cash is waging a similar battle to avoid answering questions regarding tipping off the media about an AFP raid on union headquarters. The Federal Court has issued a subpoena requiring her to give evidence but she has instructed her lawyers to fight it.
And now we hear that the Commonwealth government and the Murray Darling Basin Authority have sought a high court injunction to prevent their staff giving evidence to the South Australian royal commission into the Murray Darling. They contend that the SA royal commission does not have authority to require answers or demand the production of documents by federal employees.
This from the government who dragged three Labor leaders before Royal Commissions and broke a long-standing convention by demanding the release of Cabinet documents.
The government has sought to circumvent the law by bestowing special Ministerial powers and protections.
First, Parliament moved to give then Environment Minister Greg Hunt retrospective legal immunity against future legal challenges to his decisions on mining projects, effectively licensing him to avoid compliance with the EPBC Act.
Then we had Scott Morrison conferring on himself the power to revoke a person’s citizenship. The new laws provided the Minister with the power to set aside decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal concerning character and identity if, in his opinion, it would be in the public interest to do so.
Peter Dutton ignores court rulings that we are responsible for the care of refugees on Manus and Nauru and the ruling by the PNG court that the detention centre on Manus was unlawful. He just moved people to a different place with less protection.
Nothing epitomised more the attitude that they are a greater power than the law than when three Ministers of the Crown – Greg Hunt, Michael Sukkar and Alan Tudge – had to be threatened with contempt of court charges before they would “apologise unreservedly” for their criticism of court sentencing in Victoria.
The court had previously said the ministers had “failed to respect the doctrine of separation of powers” and “breached the principle of sub judice”.
The AFP seem to be at the beck and call of the Coalition, as shown not only by the Craig Thomson arrest and raids on the AWU headquarters, but also the raids on the lawyer representing Timor l’Este in a case involving alleged industrial espionage by our government and on Stephen Conroy and a staffer when they revealed the truth about the NBN rollout.
It is also troublesome that the government of the day gets to appoint the judiciary and decide who will act as Commissioners in inquiries – Dyson Heydon being a case in point.
As rights are being stripped away from individuals with things like metadata collection, random identity checks at airports, reverse onus of proof with alleged robodebt bills, huge penalties for withholding labour, and the loss of the ability to appeal decisions, the government threatens public servants, journalists and contractors with jail time if they disclose anything the government doesn’t want them to.
The ABC has the Sword of Damocles hanging over their head with constant complaints from the government about any story that they perceive as critical, accompanied by new (weaker?) management, continued funding cuts and calls for it to be sold off.
More than ever, we need an independent national broadcaster, an independent judiciary, a federal integrity body, responsible regulators, and a knowledgeable Senate, to oversee the actions of our increasingly secretive authoritarian government.