Three Coalition Government ministers have withdrawn some statements but refused to apologise to the Victorian Court of Appeal for criticising the state’s judiciary over terrorism sentences.
Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, Health Minister Greg Hunt and Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar have been asked to explain why they should not be charged with contempt of court, over comments they made in an article published in The Australian newspaper on Tuesday.
Commonwealth Solicitor General Stephen Donaghue QC told a hearing on Friday that in retrospect, the ministers regretted the use of some language but “did it to participate in what [they] considered to be an important public discussion” about terrorism sentences.
“[They] did not intend to undermine public confidence in the courts … the remarks were made in good faith and in an attempt to discharge [their] duties,” he told the court.
When Justice Weinberg told Mr Donaghue “I haven’t heard them apologise”, he responded: “You have heard regret as to the choice of language”.
Justice Weinberg retorted: “It’s not the same thing, is it?”
However, after repeated questioning by the three judges, Mr Donaghue said his “instructions had evolved somewhat” and the ministers would retract three comments relating to “hard-left activist judges”, conducting “ideological experiments” and suggestions the courts were “divorced from reality”.
At the start of the hearing, Chief Justice Marilyn Warren said the court was concerned the statements were “improperly made in an attempt to influence the court in its … decisions” in relation to two appeals against terrorism sentences the court had been considering.
“Further, the court is concerned that some of the statements purported to scandalise the court. That is by being calculated to improperly undermine public confidence in the administration of justice in this state,” she said.
She added the statements failed to respect the doctrine of the separation of powers and reflected a lack of proper understanding of the importance of the independence of the judiciary from the political arms of government.
Justice Warren assured Victorians judges would decide the cases before them “independently, impartially and in accordance with the rule of law”.