Slow justice damaging political culture

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 24 February 2012

The wheels of justice grind slowly, but perhaps even more so in Australia. Comparing the speed of Fair Work Australia’s investigation into Labor backbencher Craig Thomson to a snail’s pace is unfair to common molluscs. Following the three-year-long inquiry into Thomson’s alleged misuse of a union credit card is rather like watching tectonic plates drift.

Does it really need to be this way? Is this how such affairs should be dealt with in a liberal democracy?

As it turns out, other mature democracies are more rigorous about similar accusations of personal misconduct. Rather than letting proceedings drag on behind closed doors for years as in the Thomson saga, other countries are quicker in initiating formal criminal proceedings. And even before the results of such trials are announced, there is often enough public pressure on office holders to vacate their positions.

Consider the British MPs who were indicted of false accounting in the parliamentary expenses scandal. After a newspaper had revealed their fraudulent claims in May 2009, they were formally charged in February 2010. Their political parties deselected them from the following election; prison sentences between nine and 18 months were delivered between January and July 2011. Having served a quarter of their sentences, they have meanwhile been released under conditions.

From the first public allegations to court trial to imprisonment and conditional release, the British expenses scandal was shorter than Fair Work Australia’s initial investigation into Thomson.

Losing office can be even faster in Germany. Last Friday, President Christian Wulff resigned after the Lower Saxon state prosecution service had formally requested the suspension of his legal immunity. This followed newspaper reports claiming Wulff had accepted gifts from business friends in return for favourable treatment.

The threat of preliminary proceedings was enough to force the president to resign. Although Wulff maintained his innocence in his resignation speech, he argued that public doubts over his personal credibility would make it impossible for him to exercise the office of head of state.

Wulff’s departure barely took nine weeks. But even that was considered too long by most German commentators, who claimed that public trust in democracy had been damaged by his clinging to power. By staying to long, they argued, Wulff had done a disservice to himself and the office of president.

The speed with which both Britain and Germany have dealt with claims of personal misconduct was quite appropriate in both cases. For the democratic system to be trusted, it is vital there are no lingering doubts about elected office holders. Substantial claims need to be dealt with quickly, and in court, to avert harming the integrity of the political system.

Surely Australia would not want to copy the Italian example in which criminal proceedings against former Prime Minister Berlusconi have been dragging on for years, not least because of political interference.

In any case, even something as slow-moving as tectonic plates may eventually result in an earthquake.

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