Craig Thomson's flawed presumption

Since there has been no civil or criminal charge made against Craig Thomson, he had no choice but to attempt to defend his character in parliament in a case where the rule of law is isolated from the court of public opinion.

For 59 minutes yesterday, a young politician named Craig Thomson stood, spoke, constantly sipped water and choked up in an eerily quiet three-quarter full chamber as he haltingly attempted to defend his character.

He had no choice. It had to be a defence of character – because there was no charge, civil or criminal, against him. There were no court room proceedings. No judge. But the jury was listening and watching – inside and out of the parliamentary chamber.

Yes, he is "embattled” and "disgraced” and "stood aside”. Yes, FWA investigated his background in the union movement and alleged 156 instances of wrongdoing.

And this murky business of "tit for tat slime” politics had been dragging on for four years.

So he stood and unloaded – on his former union colleagues, on the media, on FWA and on opposition politicians.

He opened with a short but graphic expose of anonymous death threats and demands that he take steps to end his life. It was not easy to watch.

He made personal attacks. He attempted to explain movements and use of IDs. He could offer no explanation for phone records. He cited the AEC report as proof that other findings were shoddy and without merit.

He called for police to track down surveillance footage from brothels. He castigated TV journalists for snooping and spying on his home, and so on.

He listed his achievements as a union official and as a politician, and regretted he had settled a defamation case with a newspaper group.

As a pure piece of theatre it was hard to beat. It had all the obvious ingredients – money, sex, politics and unrequited human ambition. It was live on television and the blogosphere. Every sip, gulp, tirade, and explanation was on full and open display.

It was also a remarkable moment in the history of our great parliamentary institution.

In years and decades to come lawyers, historians and writers may well paint the drama and the circumstance of this matter and ask what has become of old fashioned democratic rights to presumptions of innocence and the rule of law.

The presumption of innocence is not some airy fairy piece of legal precedent, but is also a moral standard applied by and in democratic society. It is not a play thing for grasping politicians.

How this now all plays out in pure political terms is conjecture.

The opposition will continue to pursue Thomson. The court of public opinion is probably with them. The government will not welcome him back to the fold, and he will not be re-endorsed as the ALP candidate for his seat in parliament. The media will keep after him, with the help of his long standing union enemies who have denied Thomson’s accusations. It will drag on and on.

But sooner – or probably later – a civil or criminal charge may be laid, and he will have his legal rights applied. If that doesn’t happen then the next and subsequent elections will come and go and Thomson will be forgotten as he gets on with life.

Of course, there’s more to our national parliament than Craig Thomson – there’s Peter Slipper and his Liberal accusers, at least now in court.

So money and sex and past hatreds will still be front and centre as we ponder and debate the big nation changing issues.

Gee whiz, the prime minister may have shirked the Thomson affair by being conveniently holed up with those NATO leaders and the US president and refusing to buy in to the frenzied questions from journos, but she can look forward to more of the same in the weeks and months to come.

And to all those asylum seekers who still seem determined to breach our shores, welcome to the land of dreams and opportunity – and to the land of the rule of law where the lynch mob have no say.

Alister Drysdale is a Business Spectator commentator and a former senior advisor to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett.


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