The presumption of innocence is one of the bedrock principles of the Australian legal system. In fact, near-universal support for the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty can be observed as widely as sixth century Roman law, the Jewish Talmud, Islamic Hadith, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
As Blackstone articulated in his definitive Commentaries on the Laws of England, it has long been a central tenet of the common law that ‘it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.’ Troublingly, the treatment of Christian Porter suggests that few in the media, the Twitterati, and even academia would agree with Blackstone today.
Porter is certainly not the first Australian to become the victim of an increasingly widespread US-style weaponization of serious criminal accusations – usually made through the media on the basis of ‘anonymous sources’ – for political gain. Whether or not he is proven innocent, I strongly suspect that he will not be the last.
Last year, former Victorian Labor Treasurer Kim Wells was awarded $140,000 – including $20,000 in aggravated damages – after a political rival made a police complaint falsely accusing him of assault. Such large sums of damages are infrequently awarded for defamation, but in the absence of any further consequences for Wells’ accuser, I doubt that other ambitious political wannabes will learn the lesson. Indeed, no amount of damages will truly remedy a false allegation of criminal conduct made through the media against a public figure. As Wells told The Age: “to be interviewed by Rowville police and to have my mugshot taken could not have been more humiliating.”
This tactic has become increasingly more prevalent within all political parties, including in their youth divisions. Particularly troubling was an incident in which one prominent Victorian Young Liberal was arrested without warning at a gathering of students and MPs early last year as the result of an unsubstantiated historical assault allegation made to police by a factional rival – an accusation that was never substantiated and has not resulted in any charges. Indeed, police appear to be becoming steadily more frequent attendees at Liberal branch meetings in parts of Sydney and Labor gatherings in Melbourne.
Of course, this is not to say that there is never any truth to allegations made against public figures. But, for the same reason that the Vice President cannot preside over the impeachment trial of a sitting US President (to safeguard the political system from self-interest), all accusations made in the political arena must be treated in strictest accordance with due process.
The increasing use of the law as a weapon against political opponents has steadily debased the public discourse in the United States. Indeed, it is something more commonly seen in partial or failing democracies.
It is a trend Australians must do our utmost to avoid.
Xavier Boffa is the Executive Director of the Samuel Griffith Society and a former national president of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation.
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