Last week I wrote up a few tips and guidelines to the Malcolm election in which Australia, increasingly miserably, finds itself. I grumbled about the sexism of Dutton and the posturing of the Prime Minister and observed that the Treasurer clearly hates his boss.
The post was redundant within hours. Dutton surpassed his sexism with some carefully calibrated racist xenophobic lies. Despite obvious distaste from the Opposition, much of the commentariat and the electorate, Turnbull backed him up and Dutton doubled down. Clearly this dead cat had major work to do. Just how bad were those polls, those PEFO figures, the evidence that the budget handouts to business and the wealthy would not produce either jobs nor growth?
Maybe it was the news that Australian Border Force members are allegedly involved in smuggling rackets. You know the ones. That favourite of Dutton (and Morrison, and Abbott) which spends more on medals than the actual Australian Defence Force does. This pseudo militaristic outfit isthe solution to ‘people smuggling’ but according to Fairfax, a ‘network of Australian Border security officials’ are likely into tobacco smuggling.
Not to mention the troubling evidence from none other than Amnesty International that our government committed transnational crimes by paying people smugglers to leave Australian waters.
Perhaps it was the Pre-election Economic Fiscal Outlook, which World Today reported would revise revenue downwards from the imaginary growth figures that featured in the budget a mere two weeks earlier. The afternoon PM program then reported that the PEFO would be broadly consistent with the budget forecasts. Is this really some kind of achievement when, did I mention? The budget was tabled a mere two weeks earlier.
But then things got really messy.
Turned out the AFP was about to raid the office of a Labor senator and the house of a Labor staffer which they did in quite spectacular fashion. The raid was ostensibly over leaks of nbn™ documents. An nbn™ staffer apparently went along to advise the AFP and took photos of documents – documents which are now subject to a claim of Parliamentary privilege – but not before the former copper turned nbn™ staffer turned special assistant to the AFP could share said photos.
Or not. Who knows? If these were errors, the AFP is incompetent. If the AFP knew the documents were likely to be subject to a privilege claim and went ahead anyway, the whole thing was a redundant stunt. Redundant but for one possible purpose: the ever-present media, some of whom happened to be nearby when the night time raids were mounted. The media works in mysterious ways.
Speaking of craptacular mistakathons (© @YaThink) the AFP Commissioner then told the media that his organisation had not notified government of the raids. This was followed by a clarification from the Communications Minister that he had been advised of the raids but that he had not told the Prime Minister.
So what? Well, both men clearly have a poor understanding of the word government (the AFP Commissioner and the Minister are both members of executive government); and at least one of them is lying about whether Communications Minister Fifield was told.
Nobody has contradicted the claim that the Prime Minister was not told except, it would seem, the Prime Minister himself. Answering questions on the campaign trail, he was asked repeatedly about the raids he was purportedly not told about before the fact.
Prime Minister can you confirm that your Communications Minister knew about the possible investigation into the NBN links some months ago and didn’t tell you about it?
I can yes, that’s right.
He didn’t tell you about it but he knew about it?
So far, so good – if you believe what the Prime Minister places on the public record. After some babbling about an old white man megaphone who is a blight on our airwaves, the PM was asked:
Prime Minister Turnbull, did you or anyone acting on your behalf have any contact with NBN Co or its’ executives about this leaked material?
The AFP Commissioner having denied telling anyone in government about the raids, and the relevant minister having said he was told but did not pass on this information, the journalist is checking whether the PM knew of the raids through some other avenue.
Here is what the PM said when asked if he had any contact with NBN Co about the leaks:
Can I say to you that I’m not sure what you mean by that question. But the only issue here, the issue here is the integrity and the independence of the Australian Federal Police.
Let me just make this point; it should be a matter of very great regret that the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Attorney-General sought yesterday to attack the integrity of the Australian Federal Police. Now, Australians recognise that the national security of this country, of our nation, the safety of our people, is indivisible. It involves our armed forces. It involves border protection. It involves police, federal police, state police. It is an indivisible chain of security. The integrity of our police forces is absolutely critical.
Now, the Australian Federal Police, when they conduct an investigation, firstly they make their own decision as to whether to investigate, which they did in this particular case and then how they conduct that investigation is theirs, their decision to make, independently of government. Now, what Mr Shorten is seeking to do is to suggest that the Australian Federal Police have acted other than with integrity or other than independently. He should be ashamed of doing so.
We know, as the Commissioner said, that the AFP act with the utmost integrity and they act independently of government as they should.
Here is some of what Turnbull just did:
- began his answer with a signature distraction/think-time phrase
- expressed doubt in his own comprehension as he bought time to decide what question to replace the actual question with
- conflated AFP integrity with a lie about the Labor Party
- asserted, without a shred of evidence, that the AFP are above reproach and beyond questioning on issues of integrity and independence
- conflated an AFP raid with national security – which traditionally refers to threats from outside the nation state.
- implied that the AFP are not an arm of government. In fact, the AFP are armed agents of executive government
- backed his claim that the integrity of the AFP is above reproach by citing a man who either lied to the public or exposed the communications minister as a liar
- did not answer the question
And that is just a start. Turnbull was then asked about the NBN staffer who was present under the guise of holding expert knowledge as per AFP guidelines. He did essentially the same thing, in terms of not answering the question, switching the topic to the Opposition, and making unsubstantiated claims about the integrity of the AFP.
It is worth asking whether Turnbull would bother doing any of these things if there was a simple yes or no answer available to a properly briefed leader on the independence and probity of the raids. But apparently a man trained in first principles like presumption of innocence, and who ostensibly had no prior knowledge of the raids, also had deep insider knowledge of the facts and of culpability (emphasis added):
Prime Minister, do you accept that given these documents were presupposed to be under parliamentary privilege the AFP violated their own guidelines by having an NBN Co person present there, taking photographs?
I can’t comment on that. The documents, I note that there’s been a claim of parliamentary privilege made by Senator Conroy. The documents have not actually been tabled in Parliament, which is how parliamentary privilege is normally obtained. But really, I don’t want to get into the legalities of Senator Conroy’s determination to keep the police away from these documents, which were clearly stolen from the NBN Co. So he’s trying to keep the police away from those. He’s made a claim. Apparently it will be dealt with by the Senate when the Senate reconvenes after the election.
All I can say to you is that the police acted independently and with integrity. My Government respects that integrity and independence. It is a great pity that Mr Shorten and in particular his Shadow Attorney-General, plainly does not.
The documents were clearly stolen from NBN Co, according to the leader of the land.
Lets leave aside the presence of the former Victorian police officer turned casino security manager turned NBN staffer turned expert who was present at highly sensitive AFP raids in the full glare of the media in the middle of an election campaign where he reportedly took photos of documents and shared them before any privilege claim could be heard – this is all too murky for me.
What I can set out – in light of the Prime Ministerial claim that the documents were seized because the documents are clearly stolen goods – is a quick run down on how a criminal proceeding proceeds.
A complaint (or observation, when police are out on patrol) is made such that police form a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed.
The police interview the complainant and begin to gather other evidence.
If that potential evidence includes items that the police reasonably believe are stored at a specific location, a warrant application is made to search the premises at that location.
The warrant is signed off by a magistrate or higher officer (depending on seriousness of the crime and other details).
The police attend the suspected address and properly execute the warrant.
If evidence that matches that described on the warrant is found, it can be photographed, seized, and removed by authorised officers of the state.
We know each of these steps have been carried out, with the possible exception of the presence of the NBN staff member, which may turn out to be unauthorised at law.
Before anyone can state that the seized documents were stolen from NBN Co, let alone that the documents were obviously stolen from NBN Co, the following steps must be taken:
The police continue gathering evidence such as interviewing witnesses until there is sufficient evidence to arrest a suspect with a view to laying a charge or charges. The standard test here is whether the evidence can amount to proof such that a reasonable jury would be likely to convict the accused. Are there, asks the prosecutor, reasonable prospects of success in this case?
This rule is intended to prevent police from pursuing an unwinnable case against an accused person who merely conforms to the police idea of what a criminal is or looks like or who the police think should be locked up without credible evidence. There is a reason for thus rule. The reason is embedded in the preventative purposes listed.
Next, the police make an arrest ‘on suspicion’ of a particular offence. Then they question the suspect. Then they lay the charge (or release the suspect). There may be a bail hearing, if the police oppose bail. This is due to presumption of innocence. The accused is innocent until proven guilty, beyond reasonable doubt, in a properly constituted court of law.
There will be a mention to set various dates and may be a plea hearing. If the accused pleads guilty, we may state at this point and not before, that the documents were ‘obviously stolen’ – if and only if the charge is that of stealing these documents.
If a not guilty plea is entered, the evidence is tested before the tribunal of fact – either a jury, or a judge if the accused has opted for a judge-only trial. The prosecution presents its case. The defence presents its defence. Evidence is adduced. Applications are made for non-admissibility of prejudicial evidence (or not). Witnesses are examined and cross-examined (or not). The rules are explained by the judge if necessary.
The evidence and arguments are summarised. The tribunal of fact retires to consider the facts and circumstances of the case. A verdict is reached. The court is recalled. The verdict is delivered. If the verdict is guilty then, and only then, can we say that ‘the documents were obviously stolen’ – if the charge was that of stealing these documents.
The presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of the criminal law system. It is an acknowledgement of the fact that the state and its agents are known to abuse power. Far from the armed agents of the state being above reproach, the most foundational principles of our legal system – presumption of innocence, right to silence, guilt beyond reasonable doubt – are specific recognition of the inherent power imbalance between the citizen and the state; and of the inherent tendency of the state to abuse its power and to violate the rights and freedoms of its citizens.
This is historical fact. The evidence of state abuse of power is overwhelming, and has been for centuries. When the Prime Minister claims the AFP are beyond reproach, he contradicts what every first year law student learns about the foundational principles of our legal system and why we have them.
In other words, none of us know whether the documents were ‘obviously stolen’ until a guilty plea is entered or the evidence is tested in a court of law. Either of these two results then makes the fact obvious. That is what criminal law processes are designed to do: seek facts and evidence, construct those facts and evidence into a logical argument that examines all the circumstances, and reach a verdict, which is either the truth or becomes the truth, depending on how robust is the system and its agents.
Yet regardless of centuries of legal tradition, principles, and rules, a barrister-turned-politician, the highest-ranked leader in the land, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, got out his crystal ball and told reporters that the documents were obviously stolen.
This is not his call to make. It is a matter for the police, the accused, and the courts.
*IOKIYALNP: It’s okay if you are Liberal National Party (like living within your means, for example). Originally coined as internet slang to describe the way Republicans in the USA apply one rule for the party (family values and rampant adultery, for example); and another for everyone else.