1×01: Mr Trumble goes to Washington

In this episode of Hearsay, I’ll take a look at the international legal dispute that led to our Prime Minister being dubbed “Mr Trumble”. I’ll also talk about some of the other controversies surrounding Donald Trump’s fledgling presidency, and explain how they have parallels with issues in Australia’s legal system. Continue reading “1×01: Mr Trumble goes to Washington”

Police Minister steps down, highlighting vicarious trauma

Victorian Police and Corrections Minister Wade Noonan has stepped down from his role for three months. He said he needs a break from the job because of the psychological impact it has had on him. He explained, “It has been difficult to cope with the constant exposure to details of unspeakable crimes and traumatic events that are an everyday part of my role and the accumulation of these experiences has taken an unexpected toll.”

The issue of the exposure of people involved in the legal process to gruesome details of crimes has also been raised recently as a result of the sentencing of Matthew Graham, a 22-year-old Melbourne man who was responsible for websites sharing photos and video of the sexual abuse, torture and killing of children.

The prosecutor asked the County Court judge to view some of the worst videos: “It is with a great deal of regret that I urge your honour to view the material. Seeing it brings it home in a much more realistic and tangible way. It is probably one of the worst things you could see.” In April last year, the County Court recognised the psychological harm caused to judges and court staff who are required to observe traumatic evidence, and engaged five psychologists and psychiatrists to build judicial resilience.

Other participants in the system can also be affected. For instance, the Victorian Juries Commissioner recognises the potential for vicarious trauma, and after the trial jurors can access psychological services. Adrian Lowe, who spent four years reporting on crimes for The Age, said he asked to be assigned to different duties because he was being affected by the work, but that he still suffers the consequences: “It has been almost four years since I left the court round. The nightmares, flashbacks and visions have continued, fortunately with less frequency as the years pass.”

The issue can have an impact on the effectiveness and fairness of the legal system. In January, the ABC’s Law Report looked at how interpreters are affected by translating the details of evidence. A survey of 271 qualified interpreters found that “a quarter of respondents … said that they continued to feel traumatised for some period after and that they would choose to avoid those types of assignment in the future”. This can mean that it is hard to find appropriately qualified interpreters to deal with traumatic cases.

Abbott replaced by Prime Minister Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull has been sworn in as Prime Minister, after defeating Tony Abbott in a ballot for the leadership of the Liberal Party.

Australia has now had six prime ministers in the last eight years. The Coalition campaigned on a platform of stability in the wake of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, telling voters “If you vote for the Labor party in 2013 who knows who you will end up with”, and promising stability.

However, Abbott’s leadership of the Liberal Party came under pressure due to his continued poor results in opinion polls. He survived a challenge in February after he asked for six months to prove he could improve the Coalition’s popularity, declaring that “It’s the people that hire, and frankly it should be the people that fire.”

However, the polls did not turn around, and after being informed that he was losing support, Abbott called a leadership spill. After a ballot in which he lost by 54-44, he resigned by sending a fax to the Governor-General, recommending that Malcolm Turnbull be sworn in.

The new Prime Minister promised to return to “thoroughly traditional cabinet government”, characterised by greater consultation and ministerial independence from the Prime Minister’s office.

Vic Question Time rules tightened to demand answers

Fulfilling an election promise, the Victorian Government has introduced new sessional orders in both the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council to improve the accountability of ministers to parliament. The most significant change is to end the charade of government MPs from asking Dorothy Dixer questions during Question Time; ministers will instead be given time to make a short statement. Time limits now apply to answers, non-government MPs are allowed to ask follow-up questions to clarify answers, and if the Speaker or President believes a minister failed to answer a question they can be required to provide a written answer by the following day. While proceedings under the new rules have still been rowdy, they have already been used to force a minister to provide an answer.

Government defies order to release East West Link documents

The debate over whether to build the East West Link tunnel was a key point of difference between the major parties before the 2014 election. In an effort to lock in its plan, the Napthine Government signed a contract as well as a controversial “side letter” promising compensation to the builder if the contract later proved to be illegal. Before the election, Labor promised it would “release the full business case, the full contract and the full side deal … and every Victorian will be able to see what’s gone on”. However, after winning power it decided to keep the documents secret while complex negotiations continue to cancel the project and minimise the cost to government. The Legislative Council passed a motion calling on the Government to honour its promise and release the documents, but Premier Daniel Andrews has refused to do so. This may result in a penalty against the Government’s leader in the upper house, Gavin Jennings: “He could be suspended from the chamber, possibly indefinitely.” This is one mechanism the legislature can use to scrutinise and hold the executive to account.

New government, new portfolios

At the election held on 29 November 2014, the Victorian electorate voted for a change of government. The new premier, Labor’s Daniel Andrews, immediately made significant structural changes to the executive. There will now be just nine government departments, each covering multiple portfolios. This is designed to improve efficiency, but the new “super-departments” might be difficult to manage. He also created two new portfolios within the Department of Premier and Cabinet. Martin Foley is Australia’s first Minister for Equality, focussing on LGBTI issues, and Fiona Richardson is the first Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence. These new portfolios suggest the government’s priorities for the next three years. However, they might face problems passing bills through the Legislative Council, where the balance of power is held by five “micro-party” MLCs with vastly different interests.

VLRC to consider victims of crime

The Victorian Attorney-General, Robert Clark, has asked the Victorian Law Reform Commission to “undertake a detailed inquiry into the role of victims of crime in the criminal trial process”. It is 20 years since Victim Impact Statements were introduced to give victims a more active role in the sentencing process, but Mr Clark says it is time for a “fundamental examination of the roles that victims should be able to have in the various stages of the criminal trial process, ranging from decisions about prosecutions through to sentencing and the making of compensation orders”. Although the legislature has finished sitting ahead of the November election, the executive continues to govern, allowing the Attorney-General to make this referral. A formal “caretaker period” begins at 6pm on Tuesday, 4 November, and after that point decisions that might affect the incoming government should not be made.

Whitlam Government a rich case study for Legal Studies

Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam died this morning, aged 98. From a Legal Studies perspective, his short term in office provided much to consider. His program included many legal reforms, including lowering the voting age to 18, allowing the Territories to elect two senators each, establishing the Family Court and a no-fault divorce system, funding legal aid and community legal centres, creating the Australian Law Reform Commission, signing a raft of UN treaties, supporting Indigenous land rights, and introducing significant legislation like the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. He proposed two increases in Commonwealth Constitutional power, but both failed at the 1973 referendum. He called a double-dissolution election in 1974, and is the only Prime Minister to subsequently hold a section 57 joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament to pass deadlocked bills. He controversially appointed his Attorney-General, Senator Lionel Murphy, to the High Court—over the objection of Chief Justice Garfield Barwick. In retaliation NSW filled the Senate vacancy with a non-Labor appointment. Later that year, Queensland also replaced a dead Labor senator with a conservative. This process was changed by a referendum in 1977 to prevent it happening again, but at the time it tipped the balance of power in the Senate and allowed the Opposition to block supply bills. Whitlam refused to resign because he believed he was accountable only to the House of Representatives, but his government could not function without supply. The Chief Justice of the High Court provided legal advice to the Governor-General, arguably in breach of the separation of powers, and instead of dissolving parliament, the Governor-General sacked Whitlam and swore in Malcolm Fraser as the new prime minister. The supply bills were passed by the Senate before Labor senators had been told about the change of government. The House of Representatives immediately voted confidence in Whitlam, but it was too late. Fraser comfortably won the subsequent double-dissolution election. This series of events is known as a Constitutional Crisis because it highlighted that unwritten (and therefore breakable) conventions are very important to the functioning of Australia’s written Constitution.

Abbott abandons 18C change; racial insult ban stays

It will remain illegal to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” people on the basis of their “race, colour, or national or ethnic origin”, after the federal government abandoned its election promise to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth). Prime Minister Tony Abbott made a “leadership call” and overruled Attorney-General George Brandis, who had been pushing for the amendment. The decision was made after a strong public backlash. It was revealed last week that more than 75% of submissions in the consultation process were opposed to the plan. However, not everyone is pleased by the backdown. The Prime Minister phoned Andrew Bolt to tell him of the decision before it was announced publicly, and Bolt is not pleased. He has previously breached section 18C in writing about light-skinned Aboriginal people, and now complains that he will be unable to speak his mind about “Muslims” and “people from the Middle East”.

Geoff Shaw suspended from Vic parliament

The Legislative Assembly has voted to “name” the Member for Frankston, Geoff Shaw, suspending him without pay for 11 sitting days. In addition, he will be required to repay $5220.75 for the misuse of his office car, pay an additional fine of $1617.69, refrain from interstate or overseas travel, and apologise to the Legislative Assembly. If he fails to comply by 2 September, he will be expelled. Former Speaker Ken Smith, despite hinting he might cross the floor, voted with the government. This meant Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews was unable to amend the motion to expel Shaw from parliament immediately. The Opposition received legal advice that expulsion was an available penalty, and other constitutional experts agree. Monash University’s Greg Taylor said, “They can expel you for wearing the wrong coloured jacket or not polishing your shoes.” However, he added: “This is a nuclear bomb option.” ACU’s Greg Craven argues that “expelling an elected member is contempt of democracy ­itself.” No MP has been expelled from the Victorian parliament since 1901. The Commonwealth parliament legislated to remove its own power to expel MPs in 1987. During Shaw’s suspension, votes on the floor of the Legislative Assembly will be tied 43-43, with the Speaker casting a deciding vote.