By Mungo MacCallum
Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.
The proverb has a long and venerable lineage: in 62 BC Julius Caesar divorced his second wife Pompeia. There was no trial, no hearing, not even a formal charge – only innuendo and scuttlebutt.
Pompeia was, or might have been, the target of attention from an ardent young admirer, and that was all. But it was enough: Caesar’s wife, declared the Roman ruler, must be above suspicion. So the hapless Pompeia had to go.
In the case of the Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon, the evidence is rather more substantial: there is a paper trail. A leaflet was promulgated with the Liberal Party logo inviting the faithful for a shindig in honour of another Liberal Party icon, Sir Garfield Barwick (the former Chief Justice and covert adviser in the dismissal of Gough Whitlam) and the featured speaker was to be Dyson Heydon.
Apparently the idea had been mooted some two years ago; he accepted the invitation as a Liberal Party event in 2014, but apparently overlooked the party connection when it was confirmed twice this year. He, or his associate. only declined the forthcoming celebration last week.
We were told that the refusal had been sent before any media queries had emerged, but the Fairfax press had published the text of the leaflet the previous night, so Heydon’s office had presumably been alerted. And in the event the refusal was not a blanket rejection, but a rain check; it only applied to the duration of the Royal Commission. When it came to addressing official Liberal Party functions, Heydon wanted to keep his options open.
So it seems a clear breach of the Caesar’s wife principle, and also of the words of both Barwick and Heydon himself: judges must not only be impartial, but they must be seen to be impartial.
And if that applies to members of the judicial arm of government, how much more must it apply to the executive arm, in which Heydon has been personally selected to preside over a highly charged, very political, inquiry into the trade union movement that has included two living Labor leaders? Heydon has added to the controversy by criticising the credibility of the current one – gratuitously and provocatively, say his opponents.
From the beginning Bill Shorten and his colleagues branded it a witch hunt, a political stitch-up; they now claim to have uncovered the smoking gun. The government has no choice but to support their own appointee, insisting that he had always been fair, impartial and honourable, which may well be the case, but is not the point. He has been tainted, if that is the right term, with direct involvement with the organisation of the party that gave him his brief.
Pedalling furiously, his defenders argue about whether the dinner is or is not a fundraiser: some admit it is, others insist it is not, Tony Abbott says it is both. Well, the admission fee is certainly not exorbitant by the standards of major events, but donations are solicited in the handout and are payable to the NSW campaign fund. If it isn’t an official fundraiser, it will do until one comes along.
There were also protestations that it was really a public function, so it didn’t really count. But the gathering was by invitation, the media was excluded and it’s a fair bet that if someone like Zaky Mallah arrived at the door he would be turned away. The occasion was to be by the Liberal Party, for the Liberal Party and of the Liberal Party, and that meant that Dyson Heydon must be a sympathiser, if not an active supporter.
But again, the nit-picking is not the point. Heydon’s standing was compromised, and it was not the first time – some years ago he spoke at a meeting convened by the right wing magazine Quadrant, with an address which was designated as a job application for John Howard. His judicial expertise is not in question, but his judgement – even his common sense – most definitely is, and the damage is considerable.
The stuff up is, for once, not entirely Tony Abbott’s fault; Heydon was certainly his Prime Minister’s captain’s pick to launch the crusade against the unions, but he was hardly to know that his royal commissioner would be so rash. He cannot and will not sack Heydon, and it is most unlikely that Heydon will step down even if the unions make a formal submission for him to do so later this week. So this means that the rest of the proceedings, up till and into the final findings and their dissection, will lack a measure of credibility unacceptable in the context of a forthcoming election campaign.
Abbott was relying on his commission as another weapon to belt Bill Shorten and all his works; now he has lost that battle before it has properly started. And so the arsenal is looking a bit bare; the climate change argument is at least contestable, gay marriage has been a fiasco, tax reform is on hold, cutting expenditure is a no show. National security will presumably be ramped up yet further, but even that must have its limits.
And most importantly, the trashing of the previous Labor regime, although still an article of faith for Abbott’s zealots, is ringing increasingly hollow: the constant gaffes, divisions and general incompetence of the current administration has made a mockery of the promise of good government for grown ups, open for business and getting on with pursuing the unexceptionable aims of spruiking for jobs and growth.
And, as always, the buck stops at the top – stops dead, very nearly. Time is running out if there is to be a serious change – either from Abbott finally reviving his serially impaired leadership, or relinquishing it, willingly or not. The impasse is awkward, uncomfortable, and definitely unpalatable for the party, and particularly the vulnerable backbenchers; but there are signs that they are reluctantly moving to confront it.
Caesar’s wife is one principle, and that has been declared inoperable… Now the great leader’s own supremacy, his very survival, is once more under scrutiny. The Ides of March may have come and gone, but the ravens are still croaking.