Yesterday, George Brandis, in his farewell speech, fired a warning shot at the Liberal Party and, in particular, at Peter Dutton.
Brandis said “powerful elements of right-wing politics” had abandoned the liberal tradition in favour of “a belligerent, intolerant populism which shows no respect for either the rights of individual citizens or the traditional institutions which protect them”.
“I have not disguised my concern at attacks upon the institutions of the law – the courts and those who practice in them,” he said. “To attack those institutions is to attack the rule of law itself.”
It was the attorney-general’s duty to defend the rule of law, Senator Brandis said, “sometimes from political colleagues who fail to understand it, or are impatient of the limitations it may impose upon executive power”.
He also warned that as responsibilities for ASIO are assumed by Mr Dutton in the Home Affairs super-portfolio, the spy agency’s independence from ministers “must remain sacrosanct”.
If this is the opinion of the man who occupies the highest legal position in the country, it begs the question as to why Malcolm Turnbull, with the creation of the Home Affairs portfolio, has given Peter Dutton such individual unfettered power.
In a report by Liberty Victoria’s Rights Advocacy Project released in May last year, former Fraser-era immigration minister Ian Macphee said he was “disgusted by the power accorded to current ministers regarding the lives of people fleeing persecution”.
“Ministers now exercise power that is mostly beyond the review of judges,” he said. “Such power should be exercised humanely and in accordance with morality, not absolute law.
“The law and its practice is now unjust. It is un-Australian.”
Current powers include various discretions to approve, refuse, or cancel visas, to detain or re-detain an asylum seeker without warning, to send asylum seekers to offshore detention centres and, in some cases, prevent reviews of decisions not to grant protection visas.
The report found the creation and use of discretionary powers, particularly under immigration and national security legislation, had risen over decades, despite warnings from several previous ministers.
The report also pointed to two more Coalition bills that sought to expand them even further under the current minister, Dutton. These powers, the RAP said, would further allow an immigration minister to “play god”.
“Those decisions are not made in a transparent way in accordance with fair processes,” the report said. “Rather, the minister is empowered to an alarming degree to make decisions based upon his whim, with scant regard for due process.”
The report found that the immigration minister held 47 “public interest” or “national interest” powers that conferred largely undefined ministerial discretion.
“This is an astonishing development of unchecked discretionary power considering that in 1989 there were only three comparable public interest based discretionary powers and, prior to that, there were none whatsoever,” the report said.
Report author Lauren Bull said: “Under Australian law, no other minister – not even the prime minister – is given anywhere near as much unchecked power. It is fundamentally at odds with basic principles of democracy and the rule of law for one politician to have [that much] personal power to make such important decisions affecting people’s most basic of rights.”
There are also serious concerns about new powers for the incoming Attorney-General, Christian Porter, to compel the national intelligence watchdog to investigate a security matter.
The IGIS scrutinises the activities of ASIO, ASIS, the Office of National Assessments, the Australian Signals Directorate, the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation.
Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Margaret Stone told a parliamentary inquiry that new legislation governing her agency following the establishment of the Home Affairs portfolio will undermine her office’s independence and likely open the Attorney-General, who authorises warrants requested by ASIO, to a perceived conflict of interest.
“For instance, could a direction to undertake a particular inquiry be seen to divert the resources of this office from a review of ASIO warrants?” she said. “The power of the Attorney-General to compel an inquiry would materially detract from the Inspector-General’s ability to assure the public, as well as parliament, that the decision to conduct an inquiry is free from political influence.”
We have already seen how the Coalition have seconded the AFP for political purposes.
Gillian Triggs, in her first public speech after stepping down as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, attacked Coalition government ministers for interfering with the judicial system and for destroying the integrity of Parliament by peddling “alternative facts”.
“A culture of post-truth has allowed politicians and Parliament to reject evidence based reports by credible agencies in favour of populist decision-making that denies the truth and responds to fear,” she told UNSW’s Power to Persuade symposium. “This is particularly the case in relation to refugees, asylum seekers, terrorism, and conflict matters in general.”
Professor Triggs also referred to the Turnbull government’s “extraordinary and unprecedented growth in executive decision-making contrary to the principles of the separation of powers”.
“We have ministers now with non-compellable and non-reviewable purposes that are not subject to review by the courts,” she said. “We have seen a corresponding diminution in the role of the courts, as a lawyer that is something that I am especially concerned about.”
With all of these organisations and experienced office-holders, and many more, warning against the unprecedented rise of ministerial power with no oversight, the politicisation of security forces, the undermining of the independence of statutory bodies, and the contemptuous attacks on the judiciary, Malcolm Turnbull’s meek acquiescence to the empire building aspirations of Peter Dutton and Mike Pezzullo is exposed for the cowardly self-preservation that it so obviously is.
Turnbull, in choosing Dutton in the first place and then expanding his power, shows no judgement of ability and no regard for the best interests of the country, the rights of individuals, or the separation of powers.
He will gladly sacrifice our democracy in order to maintain his position.
He is a self-serving coward.