After several false starts, we finally learnt this week that Mr Dyson Heydon will continue in his role presiding over the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, despite submissions of apprehended bias, as determined by himself.
The reasons for his decision, presumably written in long hand, run to some 67 pages. Few would find it entertaining reading. As befits his reputation as a black letter law man, the document is wordy and complex, replete with minute detail as to what the Commissioner perceives to be the relevant facts and law.
As with any text, the reasons also contain unwritten assumptions. For instance, the Commissioner assumes that it is possible for a decision maker such as himself to bring an objective and neutral mind to his decision-making tasks. This assumption pervades our legal system, yet is questionable at best; and at worst, it is simply untrue.
Are judges impartial?
Consider the fact that decisions in lower courts are routinely overturned on appeal; or that a unanimous bench (such as a 7-0 decision of the High Court), is extraordinarily unusual. Judges make these decisions, and judges all have the same basic task, which is to apply the law to the facts and circumstances of the case at hand. If all judges are impartially carrying out their duties, in accordance with consistent legal reasoning and training, how to explain successful appeals and dissenting judgements?
Human error is inevitable, but if this was the only explanation, we would not see High Court cases almost always decided by majority (rather than unanimity). So there must be some other cause or causes. To explain the parallel universe of the legal system, we must look outside the legal system; and bring understandings from sociology, intersectionalism, and cultural studies to our understanding of the law.
Every person is a product of their background and training, of their experiences and their knowledge of the world. It is unlikely that Dyson Heydon has reflected on the social facts of his demographic privilege. There is no evidence that Heydon is alert to the dominance of white men in the process of defining what is or is not a binding precedent, for example. The harsh realities of oppressive social constructs – such as sexism or racism or homophobia – are not part of Heydon’s lived experience. He can only understand such prejudices, harms, and wrongs in the abstract.
This may seem obvious, but it goes to the heart of whether the 67 pages of reasons as to why Heydon will remain as Royal Commissioner are based on a false assumption. To accept his reasons for his decision, it is necessary to accept the claim that Heydon can bring a neutral mind, and rule impartially, on submissions as to his own apprehended bias.
Is Dyson Heydon a judge?
The claims made in support of this proposition are that it is the norm, at law, for judges to decide on their own recusal in the first instance. This is accurate. If a judge rules against his or her own recusal and a party is still troubled about apprehended bias, the next step is an application to a higher court, where another judge will rule on the question. So yes, this is common legal practice, which does not make it right, but it is lawful.
The ground for making a distinction between Heydon and all the claims made about him based on his judicial experience, or on what judges do, is this: Heydon is not a judge. So what? I hear you ask. He was a judge, a High Court judge, he retains all his judicial knowledge. And indeed he does.
But Heydon is ineligible to be a judge in 2015, under s. 72 of the Australian Constitution. Second only to the overwhelming vote to amend the race power in 1967, Australians voted a resounding yes in 1977 to make it compulsory for judges to retire at 70 years of age. Incidentally, that referendum co-incided with Sir Garfield Barwick’s tenure as Chief Justice of the High Court and operated prospectively, so Barwick was not subject to the amendment and stayed on until he was 77 years old.
Either way, and despite our Prime Minister’s apparently cavalier attitude to the Australian Constitution, it would be unconstitutional to re-commission Heydon as a judge. So Heydon is not a judge.
Is Commissioner Heydon impartial?
Heydon is however an appointee of the Abbott government, commissioned by letters patent signed by the Governor-General, to investigate ‘governance and corruption’ in trade unions. There are important implications here – in law, and in real life.
The oldest political party in Australia was formed as the workers’ party, the political branch of organised labour, otherwise known as trade unions. This is a perfectly legitimate political activity, and if it were not, the conservative forces would have abolished it by now. Sir Garfield Barwick himself, when Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, advised then-Governor General Kerr on dismissing Gough Whitlam. The immortalised Bob Menzies tried to abolish the Communist Party – and was defeated by referendum.
It is folly to underestimate the irrational anger of conservatives when they do not get their way. It is important, also, to note that referenda are powerful. We should be alert to this as Abbott throws around thought bubbles on marriage equality and recognition of First Peoples.
So. Any attempt to obscure the fact that Heydon is presiding over an investigation into Abbott’s political opponents is sophistry of the worst kind. Our two-party adversarial system is borrowed from Westminster, the English having already imposed the ‘absolute executive power’ model (in the form of Governors), on the true owners of the continent and her islands.
As Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the Labor Party in 2015 has a duty to hold the government to account and propose alternative policies, so the people have a choice in a democratic election. Again, this is a conventionally legitimate role in a Westminster system of government. Yet Abbott, ever acting like an Opposition leader, establishes a Royal Commission to look into the governance and corruption of trade unions.
The terms of reference, as was ever thus, define the findings. That there is corruption among trade unions is not left open to the evidence but is instead a pre-determined finding. (The terms of reference do not, however, point to with whom these corrupt dealings are done. Other trade unions, perhaps?)
In addition to the terms of the reference and the Constitution, the evidence suggests that Heydon is not alert to his own privilege, politics, and ideological beliefs. This is tricky territory. Heydon’s privilege is a matter of fact, shown by his race, sex, family background, and so on. We only have to identify the known empirical facts on inherited privilege such as white male property ownership, income, and power-holding positions from politics to the judiciary, professorships, corporate boards, and prominent media platforms. See for example Dylan Matthews’ analysis of Trump’s wealth and lack of investment skills here and George Monbiot on Mitt Romney, Gina Rinehart and other perpetuators of ‘self-made man’ mythology here.
Legal reasoning for non-lawyers
While the social facts are known on how our father’s status is a determinant of our own, (for example, Heydon’s father was a senior public servant under the Menzies government, when Garfield Barwick was Attorney General) assertions about Heydon’s politics or ideological beliefs are not matters of fact.
Heydon has not expressly stated that he is a supporter of the Liberal Party. Rather, he has said that accepting an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser is not necessarily, in and of itself, indicative of any political support for the Liberal Party.
Here is how it is done:
The definitional question is important because under the Ebner test it is necessary to see whether the selected definition, if the facts indicate that it is applicable, reveals the characteristic and meshes with the issues which it is said may as a result not be decided impartially.
Heydon accuses the ACTU submission of imprecision [at 75] because counsel variously described the Barwick dinner as a ‘Liberal Party’ fundraiser, function, and event. Had counsel only described the dinner in one way (a Liberal Party function, say) then Heydon could just as easily have replied that the event was more properly described as a lawyers’ professional event than a Liberal Party one, as indeed [at 79-80] he did.
…an address about a topic unrelated to the possible goals of the Party with which the two lawyer groups are associated cannot give rise to an apprehension of bias. In that example there is no proselytizing and no substantial Party activity. In the present case, the additional element must come, if at all, from the suggestion that the Address represents substantial Party activity or involvement in raising funds.
It is a familiar and legitimate technique of legal reasoning to include definitional concerns, for instance when the judge sets out the ‘material’ facts of a case. This defines the parameters within which the case will be decided, what is relevant and what is to be discarded as irrelevant; thereby nudging the ‘legal reasoning’ towards the preferred outcome. The problem is when judges or Commissioners propose that the decisions and reasoning they bring to this mental task is neutral and impartial, or in tune with or inspired by the real world. It isn’t.
For instance, we could try and picture Heydon accepting an invitation to speak at a Greens party fundraiser. Would he? Of course not. But there is no evidence to support that conclusion. The facts are that Heydon did accept the Barwick address invitation and has never spoken at a Greens fundraiser. Or we could look at it the other way: would a Labor lawyer accept an invitation to address the Sir Garfield Barwick dinner? The answer is no, not unless she was extremely gutsy and prepared to turn up in order to attack everything the audience holds dear. How do we know this? Because, in obvious and flagrant breach of the doctrine of the separation of powers, then-Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Sir Garfield Barwick, advised then-Governor General Sir John Kerr, on the dismissal of Gough Whitlam.
But at law, this does not prove anything about Heydon’s politics. Back in the real world, it is abundantly evident to anyone who is awake that accepting the invitation to speak at a dinner organised by the Sydney lawyers’ arm of the Liberal Party is strongly indicative of where Heydon sits on the ideological spectrum. Some may even say that accepting the invitation, the facts of his elite background, and the many judicial decisions available on the public record, are conclusive: that from these known facts and decisions, we can conclude that Heydon is a deeply conservative old man.
The law and the real world
But this is not how the law thinks. A sociologist could probably be found to agree with this assessment, if they have the courage to upset the establishment. It is in sociology and cultural studies that we find a more accurate understanding of social constructs. Such social constructs include classism, sexism, racism, and homophobia. Or more radically (and more accurately) we might speak of socially constructed systems of oppression that overwhelmingly benefit white male hetero-normative cis-gendered neuro-typical crony capitalists.
The standard response to these claims is that the wealth and comforts of the modern world are products of this system. The answer to this grandiose claim is to identify those groups of human beings who are not in fact the slightest bit comfortable in the modern world; and to ask: if human ingenuity and progress are not for all humans, who is it for? This brings us back to the privileged elites exemplified by men like Dyson Heydon (and Tony Abbott).
These are difficult arguments to put, because the dominant hegemony invisibilises the norm. Few people are raised to recognise that whiteness is privilege. In contrast, many people are trained to recognise that non-whiteness is ‘disadvantage’. This obscures the human agency involved in creating groups of disadvantaged citizens. We have whole swathes of legislation outlawing discrimination on grounds of sex and race, marital or pregnancy status, sexuality or religion or ethnicity. Someone must be perpetuating all these discriminatory practices.
In this context, it becomes undeniable that white men do not experience sexism and racism, and thus can only understand such harmful behaviours in the abstract. We must then ask whether white men are uniquely ill-equipped to make decisions in this area: questions as to discrimination, for example, or in the same general category, questions of prejudice and bias, or impartiality, objectivity and neutrality. Here is what Heydon found:
I have concluded that it is not the case that a fair-minded lay observer might apprehend that I might not bring an impartial mind to the resolution of the questions which the work of the Commission requires to be decided.
Lawyers love double negatives, which are deployed to obscure the weaker aspects of convoluted legal argument. If you are reading a legal document and spot a triple negative, pay close attention. It is a signal that the claims are on shaky ground.
Heydon has not concluded that the fair-minded layperson might apprehend that he may bring a partial mind to the resolution of the questions which his role as Commissioner requires that he decide. This torturous re-working of his sentence has a point.
It would be a cinch to find a person on the street who thinks Heydon is biased. A non-lawyer who apprehends that Heydon is biased. Who comprehends that even if they themselves do not necessarily think Heydon is biased, there is a public perception that Heydon might be biased. This is a simple empirical proposition, easily tested by standing on the street and asking people.
But the law does not work this way. It is not established legal practice to ask ordinary people what the ordinary person thinks. Instead, the law creates hypothetical constructs of fair-mindedness and reasonable persons and ordinary bystanders and what-not, all of which are euphemisms for non-lawyers. The law then appoints extremely senior lawyers who are immersed in the law and have been for decades – judges and Royal Commissioners – to pronounce on their own neutrality, according to their learned legal reasoning, as applied to what a hypothetical non-lawyer thinks.
The law then reproduces and hands this process down through the ages, for the law is what the law says the law is, even on the topic of what a made-up non-lawyer is thinking, inside their non-existent non-lawyer head, but without asking the many non-lawyers available to be asked. This is accepted by other lawyers as normal in terms of legal reasoning, because it is the law. Meanwhile, around the country, actual fair-minded laypersons are tearing at their ears and crying ‘what did he just say? Was that a double or triple negative? How is he assessing his own neutrality?’ And, also echoing down through the ages, ‘The law is an ass!’