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Politics and Dyson Heydon

Jun 26, 2020 • 15m 40s

The harassment allegations against Dyson Heydon have reminded some in Canberra of the royal commission that traded on his “stainless reputation”.

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Politics and Dyson Heydon

252 • Jun 26, 2020

Politics and Dyson Heydon

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

As the fallout continues from harassment allegations against former High Court judge Dyson Heydon, some in Canberra have been reminded of the Abbott-era royal commission that traded on his “stainless reputation”.

Today - Paul Bongiorno on the rise and fall of a black letter judge.

Paul, this week you've been thinking about the royal commission into trade union governance and corruption, which wrapped up in the early years of the Abbott government. Can you tell me about it?

PAUL:

Yes Ruby. I think a lot of minds in Canberra have been drawn back to 2014 and to what was from the outset a controversial use of royal commission powers.

RUBY:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper.

PAUL:

At the time, its targets were pretty obvious; former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard and then Labor leader Bill Shorten. And everybody knew it.

Archival tape -- Shorten:

And yes Tony, I do think the RC is politically motivated, so I’m not going to simply just give up and say there’s nothing you can do about that. I don’t buy that.

PAUL:

There were howls of foul play from the opposition and criticism from commentators who saw this as another partisan misuse of a royal commission.

Archival tape -- unknown:

The RC was politically motivated. It’s been a political exercise from the start.

PAUL:

Just as Tony Abbott had done months before with the pink batts royal commission, that was seen as questionable and unnecessary and ultimately served no purpose but to embarrass the Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd.

Archival tape -- Abbott:

Mr Rudd likes to say that this election is all about trust. Well the people in this business put their trust in Mr Rudd, put their trust in a government program, and look at what happened to them.

PAUL:

None of this deterred Tony Abbott, of course, who hand-picked the former high court judge, none other than Dyson Heydon to chair the trade union royal commission.

Archival tape -- Abbott:

The government will be recommending to her excellency the appointment of a RC into union governance and corruption to be headed by former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon.

RUBY:

And Dyson Heydon is the reason why that Royal Commission is, is back in your mind?

PAUL:

Ah, yes. These spectacular accusations against Heydon this week have made it impossible not to think of how much he was part of Abbott's claims to credibility. And now, six years later, further undermining that credibility.

Abbott had attempted to disguise his political play behind the aura of Dyson Heydon's virtue. In fact, then Attorney-General George Brandis set the tone. He said Heydon had, and I'm quoting, an absolutely stainless reputation for punctilious integrity.

Archival tape -- Brandis:

I knew that he was a person of absolutely unimpeachable personal integrity and a black letter lawyer virtually in a class of his own in this country...

PAUL:

While Abbott said there is no more distinguished person in the legal profession than Justice Dyson Heydon.

Archival tape -- Abbott:

He is a man of the utmost integrity as is recognised near and far across our country…

PAUL:

And as a side note, Ruby, you might be interested to know that Heyden had been on the panel that awarded Tony Abbott a Rhodes scholarship in the 1980s. Power, you know, in Australia stays in a pretty small pool.

Even so, Heyden brought the commission into disrepute. His impartiality came under heavy scrutiny in the midst of the inquiry when it was revealed he was to be the guest speaker at a Liberal Party fundraiser.

Archival tape -- unknown:

Notwithstanding that he has now withdrawn, does the PM consider that it was appropriate that a sitting Royal Commissioner agreed to give the keynote address at a Liberal party fundraiser?

PAUL:

His explanations that he was unaware of the purpose of the dinner were far from convincing.

Archival tape -- unknown:

Prime Minister, which answer do you stand by? The last answer or the one you gave a few minutes earlier? Was this a Liberal party fundraiser or not?

Archival tape -- Abbott:

I stand by both answers…

PAUL:

But in a 67 page response, he rejected labor and union calls for him to recuse himself for apprehended bias. And so, having judged himself unbiased, he plowed on.

RUBY:

Right, so Dyson Heydon investigated himself and found that he, Dyson Heydon, was objective.

PAUL:

That's exactly right.

RUBY:

So let's go to this week - and the accusations that Dyson Heydon is facing.

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, High Court-initiated inquiry by the former inspector general of intelligence and security, Vivienne Thom, found he'd sexually harassed six young female associates.

Archival tape -- reporter:

The findings against former justice Dyson Heydon are a seismic hit on the legal fraternity and the highest court in the land.

Archival tape -- reporter:

The High Court has revealed an independent investigation it commissioned has found former justice Dyson Heydon sexually harassed six former associates

PAUL:

Susan Kiefel, the current chief justice, was uncompromising in her statement released on Monday.

Archival tape -- reporter:

High Court chief justice Susan Kiefel confirmed there had been a lengthy investigation of the allegations and that the womens’ complaints were believed.

PAUL:

She said, we're ashamed that this could have happened at the High Court of Australia.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Paul, we're talking about harassment allegations against former High Court Judge Dyson Heydon in Canberra. They're being framed partly around his involvement chairing the trade union royal commission. So tell me a little bit more about Labor's response.

PAUL:

Ruby, it's hardly surprising that the most outspoken labor critic of Heydon this week was one of the former Royal Commissioner’s targets, Bill Shorten.

Archival tape -- Heydon:

Mr Shorten, I think… has been very indulgent about your style of answering some of his questions.

Archival tape -- Shorten:

Thank you...

PAUL:

Back in 2014, Heydon called into question Shorten's credibility as a witness and warned him against being evasive.

Archival tape -- Heydon:

A lot of your answers are non-responsive, some of your answers are responsive but then add something that isn’t responsive…

PAUL:

Shorten later described the royal commission as one of the great tests of his time as opposition leader, and he listed among what he calls ‘the crap thrown at me’. In a series of interviews on Tuesday, Shorten called the findings against Heydon shocking.

Archival tape -- Shorten:

And I know we use the word shocking, but I am truly shocked when news started to break yesterday afternoon…

PAUL:

He praised the courage of the complainants and noted the massive power imbalance.

Archival tape -- Shorten:

It takes a great deal of strength to come forward. I mean these are associates. They’re idealistic young staff...

PAUL:

Of course, his bitterness at the Abbott royal commission was also palpable.

Archival tape -- Shorten:

Well yeah he was handpicked by the coalition government to hold what I thought was a witch hunt into trade unions… anyway I’ve dealt with him.

PAUL:

On the Today show, he called the whole exercise a waste of time.

Archival tape -- Shorten:

Now it turns out the witch hunter in chief has got his own baggage…

PAUL:

Shorten suggested Heyden shouldn't get to keep his earnings from the royal commission if there is a court action or further revelations. He also called for the former judge to be stripped of his Order of Australia honor.

Archival tape -- Shorten:

If you believe the women, this guy was using his job in a very predatory fashion, so how does he get to keep the highest honour in Australia?

PAUL:

Though Shorten's leader, Anthony Albanese, like the Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, preferred to focus on workplace reforms with protocols to give staff protection from bullying and harassment. But by midweek, Albanese himself agreed Heyden was not worthy of his gong.

RUBY:

And what has been the reaction of the Coalition to this, to the scandal? As you say, Heyden became inevitably wound up in conservative politics after his time at the high court.

PAUL:

Actually, Ruby, it does go back before that. Some people remember Dyson Heydon's 2002 speech at a function organised by reactionary magazine Quadrant, where he outlined what he thought were the qualities a judge needed. At the time. He said. One is a firm grip on the applicable law. The other is total probity, the quality of having strong moral principles, honesty and decency.

Well, the speech was seen in legal circles as a job application for the High Court vacancy that had been created by the departure of Justice Mary Gaudron. Heydon's sneering attack on judicial activists who infested the court of Chief Justice Anthony Mason certainly impressed Prime Minister John Howard, who soon appointed him to our highest court. And Dyson's lame joke, calling Mason and the activist vegetables went down a treat.

RUBY:

Paul, has Scott Morrison himself said anything about Heyden?

PAUL:

Ruby, he made no attempt to defend Heyden.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Allegations of this sort are obviously very disturbing and very concerning. And they’re incredibly serious.

PAUL:

He foreshadowed a proper formal process and said questions of whether Heyden should lose his order of Australia honor could be addressed depending on this.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

And as you know people’s awards and honours, if those processes end in a place where those allegations have been upheld - then there’s a process for honours to be felt with at that time...

RUBY:

Does this have any implications for the way in which royal commissions have been politicized in recent years? Will we see a trend back to commissions like the Child Abuse Royal Commission, which really did exist above politics?

PAUL:

Well, you and I and probably the rest of the country might be tempted to think that. But it's hard not to see a little of Bill Shorten's royal commission trauma in his desire to inflict similar pain on the Morrison government over its scandalous handling of the robo debt fiasco.

On Tuesday, Shorten and Albanese called for a commission into the wrong and illegal demands for repayments from thousands of Australians over welfare debts calculated by an algorithm everyone had known for a long time was flawed.

Archival tape -- Albanese:

We want families and individuals to be able to tell their stories. We want a full exposure of these issues...

PAUL:

Shorten was asked how this was different to the Abbott royal commissions, especially the one into pink batts, and he made a very good point, which is the scale of hurt and the number of victims this time:

Archival tape -- Shorten:

It’s taken a class action with tens of thousands of ordinary citizens taking their government to court to force a refund of $720 million.

PAUL:

One estimate coming out of the bureaucracy is that of the 2000 people who have died after receiving robo debt notices, as many as eight hundred were suicides.

Now, there's no way of checking this figure against available information. But it's one reason Labor is calling for a royal commission because a commission would also give protection to whistleblowing public servants who might be able to detail the inner workings of the scheme and the government's handling of queries that were undoubtedly raised for several years.

RUBY:

How likely is it, though, that we will see that commission?

PAUL:

It's highly unlikely, while Morrison is the prime minister, how likely it would be in two years’ time if Labor takes the Treasury benches? Well, as they say, that remains to be seen. But the precedent has well and truly been set.

RUBY:

Paul, thank you so much for your time today.

PAUL:

Thank you. Ruby. Bye.

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RUBY:

Also in the news -

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has announced the airline is sacking at least 6000 workers, as the fallout from the pandemic continues.

The company will also continue to stand down a further 15,000 workers without pay, with international flights unlikely to resume until at least July next year.

The move has been condemned by the Transport Workers’ Union, who say the airline should have held off on sackings until after the federal government announced whether the JobKeeper program would be extended.

**

And the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has announced a plan to conduct 100,000 coronavirus tests across 10 Melbourne suburbs in the next 10 days.

Contact tracing teams and testing facilities are also being boosted, with testing focused on suburbs where there is what he called a "community transmission challenge".


7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

**

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you Monday.

The harassment allegations against Dyson Heydon have reminded some in Canberra of the royal commission that traded on his “stainless reputation”. A key target of that inquiry is now pushing for one into Robodebt.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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252: Politics and Dyson Heydon