The charitable view
You have to feel sorry for Dyson Heydon on a number of counts.
He was, according to reports from those who know him (including Prime Minister Tony Abbott), an “imminent jurist”, not a household name, but then most high court judges don’t get to be household names. Now he has achieved rockstar notoriety with a lifetime of achievement swept away by a single incomprehensible error of judgement.
He must be absolutely ropable. His only fault was not checking a speaking invitation carefully enough. But he has no one to blame but himself: a man internationally famous for his attention to detail.
In an article in The Age, Simon Longstaff cites Heydon on the question of bias: “It is fundamental to the administration of justice that the judge been neutral. It is for this reason that the appearance of departure from neutrality is a ground of disqualification. It is the perception of the hypothetical observer that is the yardstick.”
Longstaff draws the conclusion, as will all of his readers: by his own standards, Heydon must disqualify himself from the Royal Commission.
A wiser man would have realised that his membership of the committee that granted Tony Abbott his Rhodes scholarship would surely surface and that in the toxic political climate that exists currently, this would be used to damaging effect against him.
But the biggest mistake that Heydon made was accepting the job in the first place. A wiser man would have realised that accusations that the Royal Commission was a political witch hunt would inevitably surface and that accusations of political bias would follow as surely as night follows day.
He will now be left to reflect, as many people will, that respect the public institutions has declined and the public scrutiny of people who would normally have considered themselves to be, almost by definition, above approach, is increasingly pervasive and vitriolic.
The uncharitable view
Dyson Heydon is an ex-High Court Judge, he knows which way is up and as a Royal Commissioner, he is playing in the big-league. So he knows the rules.
He also knew that his speaking engagement was a Liberal party fund raiser because he sent out Liberal party flyers as invitations.
As an “imminent jurist”, he would be well aware of Sir Garfield Barwick’s history: he was the Governor-General who advised them Opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, on the dismissal of the Whitlam government. Being a speaker at an event organised by the Liberal party in the honour of such a man can only be seen as participation in partisan politics.
The plain facts are that he thought he could get away with it or that no one would call him out for it.
Wrong on both counts.
He’s been mates with Tony Abbott for some time going right back to when Abbott received his Rhodes scholarship from a committee on which Heydon was sitting.
In his book Battlelines, Abbott comments “As much, I’m sure, through my role in student politics as through academic or sporting prowess, I was chosen as the New South Wales Rhodes scholar at the end of 1980.”
At the time, Abbott was studying law at the University of New South Wales. Heydon was the Dean of Law.
Too many coincidences to pass the pub test!