There’s nothing all that surprising about the comments of three Liberal MPs undermining judicial integrity this week. The real shock is that the Victorian Supreme Court judiciary appears to have had enough.
Claims that judges are ‘too political’, ‘soft on crime’ or ‘out of touch’ has been a staple of Liberal party rhetoric for decades now. The traditionalist conservative tendency to respect the integrity of our legal institutions has always been overshadowed by a populist right wing keen to undermine ‘elites’.
Following the Mabo decision, West Australian Liberal Party President Bill Hassell argued that:
Being generous, one must respectfully assume that the High Court was simply misguided that the majority of judges confused their responsibilities as judicial officers with their personal ideologies, that they were not part of the wider long-term agenda which will inevitably lead, if followed, to a divided and damaged, and some would say destroyed, Australian society.
Following Wik Peoples v The State of Queensland, which confirmed that statutory pastoral leases did not extinguish native title, tirades against ‘judicial activism’ became a staple of Liberal Party discourse.
Whether we are talking anti-terrorism laws, asylum seeker rejections or ‘tough on crime’ measures, the Liberal Party has a tendency to view judicial oversight and ‘checks and balances’ as a hindrance to its legislative agenda. Recent policy trends to implement mandatory sentences as well as to hamstrung bail and parole decisions reflect this deep distrust in judicial decision-makers.
The ugliest example of disrespect for the bench is Liberal MP Bill Heffernan’s use of parliamentary privilege to slander openly gay, High Court Justice Michael Kirby with allegations of soliciting underage male sex workers. The allegations were completely fabricated but served the political purpose to present an image of a deviant, out of touch judiciary.
Whether or not the comments of Liberal Ministers constitute contempt of court, the blatant disrespect for an independence judiciary is at the heart of what’s wrong with contemporary right wing politics.