EVEN if you credit the City Square Occupists with the best of intentions, the fact remains that others might not be quite so pure of motive. The ruffled demonstrators’ coming legal actions, which the Phage previews today, stand to generate quite a bit of the folding stuff, not least for the lawyers who will be clogging the courts with pleas for justice (and damages). Sensible Melbournians who watched Friday’s efficient and relatively bloodless eviction can take heart from the comment of an unnamed walloper, who was delighted to note that Christine “A Gal Has To Eat” Nixon’s era of non-policing policing is now officially over. Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana, who led the operation, can also smile, as his handling of the situation confirms that he deserves to be on the shortest of short lists for the job of Victoria’s next top cop.
Now that the Square has been swept clean and the action shifts to the Ombudsman’s office and, most likely, the courts, it is time to consider what the former Bracks/Brumby government did to the judiciary and the public’s ability to have faith in it. On magistrates benches and more elevated legal perches, a legion of Labor-aligned hacks appointed over the past dozen years continues to deliver an often peculiar justice. What are the odds, do you think, that Friday’s lawyered-up malcontents will find themselves before judges imbued with the leftoids’ typically abstract concern for issues, rather than the circumstances of particular grievances and the merits of resulting claims for redress? The absurdity of some allegations against police, one fears, will be no obstacle to minds such as those.
Precedent makes that prospect even more unsettling. As the Herald Sun reported in March, 2007, 47 protesters who claimed injuries as a result of the police response to their anarchy outside the S11 gathering shared a windfall payout of $700,000. And that was on top of the $600,000 slipped to law firm Slater & Gordon, the former employer of both our PM (who was “young and naïve” back then) and the luvvies’ current toast, Andrew Bolt’s nemesis Judge Mordy. The deal was cut, and much taxpayer cash bundled out, on the pretense that it made good financial sense to end the actions before legal costs became even more outrageous.
The question, though, is why those cases were allowed to proceed so far? The S11 mob started the violence after defying orders to disperse, and nobody seriously questions that the protesters laid siege to the Crown complex with an arsenal intended to injure police and, most despicable of all, cripple mounted officers’ horses. A decent justice system, one overseen by judges who wear the public good on their sleeves, rather than party sympathies, would have sent the plaintiffs packing on Day One. Instead, all sorts of low specimens were made wealthier, and public trust in the courts suffered further erosion.
Will it be any different this time? That depends on Premier Ted Baillieu, who was scathing in denouncing the closed-door settlement negotiated by the then-government and Slater & Gordon. “The Victorian public will be rightly outraged," he said at the time. "This is yet another backroom deal and people are sick of Labor's backroom deals.” True, he cannot boot the Labor holdovers, nor would it be right to do so. Labor made a slather of bad appointments, but reversing them by executive fiat, if that were possible, would only do further harm to the legal system.
But what about a simple, no-nonsense statement from the Premier’s office?
Suppose Big Ted announced that his government would not, under any circumstance, settle the coming actions, even if that meant shouldering the additional cost of appeals, no matter how steep that might be. After that, he could vow to pursue the demonstrators and their lawyers for costs.
The business of fixing our Nixonised police force appears to be going quite well, but that gain will count for little until the courts are brought into line.
Over to you, Big Ted.
A COUPLE OF NOTES: First, Fontana’s credentials go beyond Friday’s action. On Black Saturday, when his boss rated dinner more important than Victoria’s worst disaster, Fontana stayed at his post and demonstrated that rarest of Nixon-era qualities, leadership.
And second, if, as seems likely, Slater & Gordon becomes the protesters’ counsel, how will the anti-capitalists reconcile hopes for a payout with their movement’s disdain for the stockmarket, on which shares in the law firm are traded?