Flat White

Gareth Ward and the presumption of innocence

27 March 2022

4:00 AM

27 March 2022

4:00 AM

I live in Kiama, a village just south of Wollongong. It is the centre of a small state seat. Its local member, Gareth Ward, has just been charged with sexual assault after an investigation lasting some eighteen months. When the investigation was announced, Ward resigned his ministerial position and withdrew from the Liberal party room. I know Gareth Ward personally and I like him. I have found him to be an engaging and effective local member.

I have no comment to make on his case.

I am the Secretary of the local Sub-Branch of the RSL and we have invited Gareth Ward to lay a wreath at our ANZAC Day commemoration this year. If he accepts that invitation, I will welcome and socialise with him in the normal way.

That is called the presumption of innocence.

In the immortal words of Horace Rumpole, it is the golden thread that runs through our judicial system. Once upon a time, we thought that it also ran through our civil society, but now it seems, not so much.

Here is New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet’s take on the golden thread, as reported in The Australian:

While Mr Ward is entitled to the presumption of innocence, as any citizen is, the standards expected of an elected member of parliament are not compatible with the seriousness of the charges he is facing.’

We often hear this, ‘I believe in the presumption of innocence but…’ The ‘but’ is always followed by some form of weasel-word proviso or another. They could all be replaced with the phrase ‘but I don’t’.

Be that as it may, like some others, I saw Perrottet as the great hope of the side when he replaced Gladys Berejiklian. Since then, he has had some wins and some losses and I have reserved my judgment of him.

But the arrogance of the above assertion just takes my breath away. Set aside that he is only half pregnant on the essence of the presumption of innocence, what is really galling is the implication that we mere mortals may live to a lesser standard than these demi-gods we elect to represent us.

So, it would be okay for a bank to continue to employ Ward despite the seriousness of the allegations he faced? What if that bank aspired to a higher standard, such as, say, that of the NSW Parliament? Would it be okay for it to then dispense with the presumption of innocence?

We know that presumption of innocence is not just a glib throwaway phrase that we can airily dismiss whenever it suits our own interest. Just ask Cardinal George Pell.

This is important because we now have a new court in our judicial system that ranks equally with the High Court. It is called the Court of Public Opinion. It was not previously capitalised because it was an informal institution – what politicians routinely and irritatingly call the pub test. (Don’t you hate that phrase?) It now issues rulings, to which there is no appeal, courtesy of the ABC, of social media, and of left-wing mainstream media outlets.

Failed to get your man through the criminal court? No worries, just take your case to the Court of Public Opinion. You won’t get a custodial sentence, but you will be able to destroy your quarry’s life or career, as witness what is currently happening to Constable Zachary Rolfe, or what has already happened to Christian Porter and Alan Tudge.

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