If a week is a long time in politics, it’s even longer in the legal system when your ministerial career is potentially on the line.
Three federal government ministers potentially facing contempt charges in Victoria will escape the prospect after they finally apologised to the court today for critical comments about sentencing for terrorism.
Last week, health minister Greg Hunt, human services minister Alan Tudge and assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar, were ordered to explain themselves before the Supreme Court “to make submissions as to why you should not be referred for prosecution for contempt”.
The trio, all lawyers from Victoria, were represented by Commonwealth solicitor-general Stephen Donaghue QC in an astonishing and tense 90 minutes before the three-member bench last Friday.
The Supreme Court of Victoria recorded the hearing, which can be viewed here.
The three ministers had been critical of the judiciary in comments in The Australian that referred to “hard-left activist judges” who were “divorced from reality” and described the legal system as being subject to “ideological experiments”.
They made their comments while the Court of Appeal was considering appeals by the Director of Public Prosecutions against the sentences of two convicted terrorists in cases known as Besim and MHK.
Chief Justice Marilyn Warren said there were concerns the comments were “an attempt to influence the court” during the two appeals, as well as “scandalise the court” and “improperly undermine public confidence in the administration of justice in this state”.
Justice Mark Weinberg wondered the ministers had put the court in an “embarrassing, invidious position”.
The court heard that all three ministers based their comments to The Australian on an ABC report and had not read the court transcripts.
At first, the three Turnbull government ministers stood their ground, defending their positions as part of their public duty, with Donaghue telling the court last Friday that they stood by their comments.
But as the anger from the bench became increasingly clear, the politicians began to back down, with Sukkar the first to change his advice to the solicitor-general halfway through proceedings and withdraw his “hard left” comment. Hunt and Tudge soon followed.
But the bench did not appear mollified and repeatedly asked if they would also apologise. Donaghue declined on their behalf, instead offering “regret”.
The Australian made a “full and sincere apology” for publishing the article.
The court reserved its judgment on the matter, and for a week, the prospect that all three ministers could face contempt of court charges loomed large.
Today, they avoided the possibility with the solicitor-general returning to court on behalf of the trio to offer an apology.
“We have realised we should have offered an unconditional apology to the court,” Donaghue said
“We offer that apology now and unreservedly withdraw all comments.”
The Chief Justice observed that the delay in offering an apology was “regrettable and aggravated the contempt”.
But they will not be charged with contempt.
The apologies came after the Victoria’s Court of Appeal ruled on the two matters that led to the showdown.
Sevdet Besim, 20, had his sentenced increased by four years to to 14 years for his Anzac Day 2015 plot to kill a policeman. He will now served a minimum of 10.5 years.
In the other case, MHK, now aged 19, has his sentence increased by four years to 11 years, with an 8.5 year minimum, for a planned bomb attack in April 2015.
Fairfax Media has more on the appeal cases here.
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