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Leading article Australia

Averting their eyes

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

The royal commission into institutional child abuse is to be welcomed — with caution. For too long, horror stories of disgusting practices forced upon helpless children in the care of churches, schools and government institutions have dogged this country.

Ultimately, those responsible deserve to be tracked down by police to face punishment. To what extent the royal commission will assist in this process — or hinder it — is open to speculation, and concerns have been expressed about the duration of the commission, the precise remit it is working to, the lower burden of proof, and so on.

While independent Senator Nick Xenophon wants a tight focus and deadline, arguing that the work needs to be completed within two years to be effective, Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon foresees a decade-long ‘big and slow-moving beast’. The worry is the gradual politicisation of the commission and its findings. In 1997’s Bringing Them Home report, Ronald Wilson concluded that the forced removal of Aboriginal children into care constituted ‘genocide’. Such dramatic and inaccurate language was more about pleasing political masters than delivering justice or righting wrongs.

With Nicola Roxon one of the ministers in charge (the other is Brendan O’Connor), the royal commission could well be jeopardised from the start. As Attorney-General, Ms Roxon has displayed a worrying inability to distinguish her legal responsibilities from her political beliefs, unacceptably interfering in due process on more than one occasion.

Until the parameters of the commission are properly established, it’s difficult to assess how effective the findings will be. But already, the crime of ‘averting your eyes’ has been trumpeted by Julia Gillard as the benchmark. Based on the maxim that ‘evil triumphs when good men do nothing’, this is a hazardous path to be heading down without specific new legislation. According to the Prime Minister, it is not only the criminals who are ‘vile and evil’ but those who ‘allowed’ such crimes to happen. Enter the thought police. The accusation of ‘averting your eyes’ is not only extremely vague and open to interpretation, it may be impossible to disprove. Innocent individuals may find their lives, careers or reputations ruined by the commission on no more than hearsay.

In 2003, Governor-General Peter Hollingworth was hounded out of office for this same offence, despite protesting his innocence. The politician leading the lynch mob was Nicola Roxon.

Although there is obviously no comparison between turning a blind eye to child abuse and turning a blind eye to mundane crimes such as embezzlement, it is worth noting that the offence of ‘averting your eyes when in a position of authority’ is the precise ‘crime’ the Prime Minister currently stands accused of in relation to murky events in her own distant past.

Put your feet up, Tony

As the end of the parliamentary year fast approaches, it’s fair to say that Tony Abbott is not in quite the comfortable position he would like. A grossly defamatory accusation of misogyny hangs over his head, the relentless negativity of the Labor spin machine has damaged his personal poll figures, and despite a litany of incompetence and failed policies Julia Gillard has managed to drag Labor back into contention for next year’s election.

Surely the approaching Christmas break is the ideal time for Mr Abbott to pull on the Speedos and renew his successful attacks on the carbon tax, the boats, the disappearing surplus, government waste and mismanagement, and to hold Ms Gillard and her cronies to account for badly implemented schemes and flawed decision-making? Or why not get out with Marge and the girls for a few shoe-shopping trips to Darlinghurst and kill the sexism allegations once and for all? Or maybe write a few diary pieces for indigenous women’s magazines? Or maybe show a touch of the John Howards and review a cricket book for The Spectator? Or all of the above?

Tony, relax! Or ‘chillax’ as the under-thirties say. Kick your shoes off, spread out the beach towel, open the Speccie, pour yourself a cold one and put your feet up. You’ve earned it. The last Liberal opposition leader to lose an election and then win the following one was Robert Menzies. Despite Ms Gillard’s resurgence, you’ve kept the Coalition in a commanding position to form the next government. The election year will be nasty, bitter and long. Keep your wits about you, your convictions strong, and you will prevail. In the meantime, take it easy and preserve your energy. You’re going to need it.

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