It was almost a case of “Watch yourself, sunshine.” with the Supreme Court of Victoria making it quite clear to a group of senior federal ministers just where the lines are drawn and giving three senior ministers a good and fairly public whack around the ears.
Three Federal ministers Health Minister Greg Hunt, Human Services Minister Alan Tudge and Assistant Minister to the Treasurer Michael Sukkar (all lawyers) were hauled before the Supreme Court for speaking out about the leniency of sentences handed down by the Victorian courts on terrorism charges.
Chief Justice Marilyn Warren said the comments were “fundamentally wrong” and that the delay in apologising was “regrettable and aggravated the contempt”.
Which is code for, “If this matter came before me, you would all be found guilty of contempt.” This would mean they would probably all be disbarred from holding their seats in Parliament.
The Turnbull government currently has a majority of one in the Lower House and this would mean the government would lose its majority and be forced to hold three by-elections which it would probably have a reasonable chance of winning. But trailing 53–47 in the polls, it probably wasn’t a chance that Malcolm Turnbull really wanted to take.
So despite a bit of huffing and puffing from the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister everybody has gone strangely silent on the issue.
Except the three ministers who said, ” We have realised we should have offered an unconditional apology to the court. We offer that apology now and unreservedly withdraw all comments. It’s clear just how inaccurate our understanding was.”
And it was not a case of what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull argued when he said in defending the three ministers, arguing the courts “cannot be and are not immune from criticism, which may extend to robust observations of a particular decision or penalty”.
What happened here was that the ministers made their commentary while the Supreme Court was considering the case of a specific terrorist and the Ministers’ comments could be seen as an attempt to influence the outcome of the specific trial and this is something that the Chief Justice is rightly sensitive about.
If parliamentarians and the electorate, in general, are unhappy about the sentences that are handed down for terrorist offences then Parliament can change the laws and the courts will then enact those laws.
It is good to know that “robust observations” can be directed at politicians who cannot be and are not immune from criticism” nor from the consequences of their public statements.