Jarrod Bleijie's tenure as Attorney-General has been a disgraceful chapter in Queensland legal history and healing can only begin once he has been removed, writes barrister Alex McKean.
IN HIS television interview on 7.30 Queensland on Friday, 13 June 2014, Walter Sofronoff QC said, answering questions about the propriety of Chief Magistrate Tim Carmody having been appointed, the day before, to the role of Chief Justice of Queensland:
"This isn’t really about Judge Carmody."
Mr Sofronoff QC is right, it is not about Judge Carmody QC. It certainly is not about what school he went to, what jobs he had as a young man, or whether he is a ‘good bloke’.
It takes two to tango (or quango as Yes Minister would have it). Before Carmody could accept an appointment, the offer of an appointment had to be made. The staggering lack of judgment on behalf of Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie in making that offer will be the subject of this article.
It is easy, when someone is in the news, all of the time, to focus on just the latest headline. In the case of Mr Bleijie, it is a serious mistake not to remember the whole catalogue of incidents in which he has been involved. His glaring inadequacies as Attorney-General become clearer from examining the whole picture.
The issue, however, is not about lack of skills or personal failings. It is about the institutions on which our democracy depends and the rule of law in this State depend.
From the very beginning of Jarrod Bleijie’s tenure as the first law officer of the State, the indications were disturbing. Bleijie showed a distinct lack of judgment, or even decorum, from the start. The whole picture is much more disturbing. Legislation has been passed that will strip the independence of our anti-corruption body, while the Judge Carmody appointment has implications for the independence of our courts.
There was the schoolboy chuckling over a visit to The Beat nightclub, while pandering to homophobes on civil unions and the so-called ‘gay panic defence’, and dismissal of concerns of a broad cross-section of community groups that timeframes for making submissions to Parliamentary Committees on fast-tracked legislation as "crazy".
Mr Bleijie abolished the Murri, Special Circumstances and Drug Courts, despite evidence the programs had produced $40 million in savings to the budget.
When asked if he had ever been to the special circumstances court to see the work it did, he reportedly flippantly replied:
"Highly unlikely, now, that I’ve abolished it."
There is the vague reminiscence of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s peculiar mixture of social conservatism and religious wowserism, which became apparent when Bleijie proposed making all outdoor advertisements G-rated, at the behest of the Australian Christian Lobby.
Mr Bleijie was widely ridiculed for his naive assertion that rape does not happen in Queensland jails. His thought-bubble that mining companies and banks should be involved in delivering youth justice was overwhelmingly rejected by the public.
In May 2013, Bleijie appointed Dr Ken Levy as the acting chair of the Crime and Misconduct Commission. Dr Levy is now under investigation by the Commissioner of Police because he possibly misled a Parliamentary Committee in his evidence about a Courier-Mail article supporting the Government’s anti-bikie laws.
A separate Select Committee on Ethics investigation has been suspended, pending the outcome of the police investigation. While both investigations were underway, Bleijie introduced and rushed through legislation to legislatively extend Levy’s appointment as acting chair of the CMC.
Bleijie demonstrates a rare ability to describe black as white with a straight face. He has announced, for example, that removing caps on political donations will make the process ‘more transparent’, or that allowing the Government of the day to select the head of the CMC will avoid politicisation of the process.
Premier Newman overlooked a number of better-qualified candidates in appointing Bleijie as A-G. A more experienced A-G may have stood up to Newman and refused to implement some of the more hare-brained schemes that have not stood up to legal challenge.
An A-G with some form of connection to, and respect from and for, the legal profession, would have been less likely to engage in the sort of destructive warfare which has tended to follow even the mildest criticism of the Government by the legal profession.
Mr Bleijie has greeted condemnation by the profession of, to name but a few: naming and shaming of child offenders, the suite of anti-bikie legislation, mandatory sentencing, and changes to the CMC with disdain.
The A-G appears to measure his output by the quantity, rather than the quality, of the legislation he rams through the Parliament. When his rushed and misconceived laws go awry, he quietly fixes up the mistakes, in the case of the ‘union transparency’ laws, or distances himself from the errors, saying he "doesn’t personally draft legislation".
A disturbing lack of knowledge of, and respect for, fundamental democratic principles, has been evident in the A-G’s attempt to bypass the courts to keep sex offenders in gaol forever. He also attempted to defend the indefensible when he said the Government had no choice but to sack the Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee, an unprecedented act.
Mr Bleijie’s bungling attempts to answer questions about Newman’s labelling lawyers ‘part of the criminal gang machine’ by identifying a particular firm, only served to make a defamation suit from the lawyers in that firm inevitable and more likely to succeed.
Mr Bleijie has sicced his department onto billboard companies who ran ads critical of the Government and the Together Queensland Union. He has also ignored the advice of his own department and decided to award a lucrative youth boot camp project to a bidder whose tender of $2.2 million was more than twice that of a competitor. The successful candidate promptly donated $5,500 to the LNP coffers.
Another candidate for the role of A-G may also have adhered to the traditional role of defending, rather than attacking, the judiciary and ensuring necessarily confidential discussions remained that way.
Bleijie snubbed retiring Supreme Court Justice, George Fryberg, who had spoken out against the bikie laws. His comments about the judiciary ‘caring more about the law than justice’ prompted the President of the Court of Appeal to urge the profession to continue to be independent, as a check of executive power.
A number of prominent individuals who have worked closely with the A-G, have declared that he is not to be trusted. Walter Sofronoff QC resigned as solicitor-general in March 2014, calling for the A-G to follow suit. Sofronoff said that by revealing the content of confidential discussions with a senior judge about a judicial appointment, Bleijie had failed in one of his "primary functions".
The disclosure by Bleijie drew condemnation from the Judicial Conference of Australia and a warning that judges may ‘blacklist’ the A-G.
The Bar Association of Queensland refused to co-operate with Bleijie over proposed sex-offender legislation after the Court of Appeal rejected his bid to keep an offender locked up.
On Friday 13 June 2014, the President of the Bar Association, Peter Davis QC, resigned, saying he had no faith in the integrity of the process which saw Judge Tim Carmody QC appointed to the role of Chief Justice, after details from confidential discussions with Bleijie were leaked and distorted.
Mr Davis QC said there was very little support for the appointment in the legal profession and very little, if any, support for it on the Supreme Court bench. He also referred to the activities of Ryan Haddrick, a Brisbane barrister and former political staffer for various Liberal MPs including former LNP leader John-Paul Langbroek and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who had contacted a member of the Bar Council and appeared to indicate the Bar Association should support the appointment of Carmody.
Haddrick is said to have indicated, in a text message, that if the Bar Association did support the appointment, future appointments might be made from the ranks of solicitors rather than the Bar. He is also said to have indicated in a subsequent telephone conversation that the Bar might lose the statutory power to issue practicing certificates.
Ryan Haddrick is a former chief of staff to Mr Bleijie, who Bleijie then appointed as one of the Counsel Assisting the Child Protection Inquiry, a job paying $2,000.00 a day. Mr Haddrick at that time had only been at the Bar for two years. The Commission of Inquiry leapt to the defence of Mr Haddrick, confirming that Mr Haddrick had been ‘hand-picked’ by the Commissioner — none other than Tim Carmody QC.
These are very serious matters, which require fearless and thorough investigation. Any suggestion that an institution like the Bar Association might be subverted by threats or inducements to support a particular appointment goes to the heart of the public confidence in the judicial system.
I decline the invitation from the Minister Walker to "put a sock in it". To be silent at this time would be wrong. The importance of a judiciary which is both independent and seen to be independent, cannot be overstated. That independence exists to protect the public from excesses of power and should never be the plaything of those whose excesses the public must be protected from.
Jarrod Bleijie has antagonised so many in his short time in his job and I am proud to join the ranks of those who have called upon him to resign. His tenure has been a disgraceful chapter in Queensland legal history and healing between the institutions can only begin once he has been removed.
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