SHADOW Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has criticised the way the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, does his job. His focus on terrorism and security has been to the detriment of social and criminal justice, Roxon said.
In a speech last week at the ANU Centre for International and Public Law, Roxon criticised Ruddock’s attention to terrorism and national security, claiming it “appears to constitute almost the entire focus and workload of the Federal Attorney-General”.
Acknowledging they were important matters, Roxon said the A-G should nevertheless take a different focus.
She said she had an alternative vision for handling new security issues. She intended to outline what the Labor Party believed was the appropriate role for the A-G.
The Attorney needed to help provide a strong security framework, Roxon said, but also handle day-to-day legal issues for ordinary Australians.
Two recent issues highlight how the Government has “lost its focus and mismanaged its priorities” in the Attorney-General’s portfolio, Roxon said.
The first related to the Australians detained at Guantanamo Bay, in which “we have seen an abdication by the Government of any responsibilities for its citizens”, she said.
“In contrast to the British Government, Australia did not actively argue for the release, return or charging of our citizens,” Roxon said.
“The Australian Government refused to question the US over the legality and terms upon which people were held in this legal no-man’s land as enemy combatants but not prisoners of war.”
The “bottom line” in the Government’s handling of this issue, Roxon told her audience, was that it had not actively confirmed that Australian citizens were being treated humanely or detained according to either international law or another nation’s law, nor advocated a trial process that accorded with the basic standards of criminal justice.
The tendering out process used for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) may also show the A-G’s foibles, Roxon suggested.
The impact of tendering out these services had left the Indigenous and legal communities “gobsmacked”, she said. “Services that are well known and trusted by communities could be lost.”
The A-G’s Department had been working on a National Indigenous Justice Strategy for nearly three years, since November 2001, Roxon said.
“But we still have nothing more than a discussion paper, which has received extremely limited circulation.
“In fact, they seem to have forgotten to send the discussion paper to anyone, least of all Immigration Minister Vanstone and her staff when they were busy developing the new tender documents.”
Roxon said she believed an Australian Attorney-General should operate within a strong social justice framework.
“That supports and promotes the rule of law and respects the need for people to have access to justice, and rights to be protected against extreme action of governments”.
In order to have this, Australia needs an Attorney who respects the courts and their role in our democracy, Roxon said.
“We must support and adequately resource the federal courts and the administration of justice so it can serve all the community and acknowledge the importance of a strong, fearless and competent judiciary in a modern democracy.”