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Our Attorney-General is missing in action

By Natasha Cica - posted Monday, 12 February 2007

Bring David Hicks Home has become a mainstream slogan, screamed out in loud Gitmo orange.

This week, activist movement GetUp has cranked up a multimedia advertising campaign featuring an image of Hicks as an innocent child with voiceovers from his father, Terry. Even radio shock jocks now loudly reckon Hicks' plight is un-Australian, the same blurred, muddy smear so readily flung against him by hawkish political players when Hicks first hit our news radar.

This shift is an encouraging sign that due process and basic decency are not the exclusive concern of our so-called elites. At the same time, something vital is still missing.


Today it is implausible to deny that much of Hicks' treatment in detention has offended common core principles of Western law and justice, Australian values, universal human rights and Judeo-Christian morality, regardless of what Hicks did before his capture. Yet deny it Attorney-General Philip Ruddock persistently does.

Recall his bloodless statements just last week that some people don't handle detention well (so who's up for a few years at Guantanamo Bay? It's not the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre) and that we have been advised that Hicks has been treated humanely and in accordance with international standards for interrogations (by exactly whom, backed up by what evidence, and where does the Geneva Convention sit?).

Further, according to Ruddock, sleep deprivation alone does not amount to torture (not according to its past victims, including former Israeli prime minister Menachim Begin) and holding Hicks in a single-occupancy cell does not amount to isolation, including because he is allowed out for reading (in that library with no books? Or maybe for a squizzy at that Saddam Hussein execution poster?) and other recreational purposes (Hicks' lawyers say he has seen direct sunlight just three times in the past month).

This raft of claims has received relatively scant critical attention, remarkable at a time when Prime Minister John Howard's ministerial reshuffle left Ruddock firmly in the legal driver's seat. Is that because Australians, even those so-called elites, have become used to the practice of plausible deniability in government, in the long wake of apparently short-lived scandals such as children overboard and the Cornelia Rau and AWB affairs?

Ruddock's latest assertions demand scrutiny. They are extremely provocative, both legally and morally - especially coming from the Attorney-General rather than, say, some garden-variety law professor, senior counsel or retired judge.

The office of the attorney-general is properly elite, one of special status and responsibility, because any government operating under the rule of law needs to pass legislation to implement its policy agenda.


Accordingly, the attorney-general has been generally granted more trust and latitude than many other politicians. The argument can and should be made that Ruddock's carriage of the Hicks case, and other aspects of the so-called war on terror, has radically undermined the convention of respect for this office and that he should be called to full account.

So who'll run with that heftier brief as we open legal year 2007? Where is our Christopher Hitchens to deliver our version of the trial of Henry Kissinger, moving beyond slogans to systematic and scrupulous dissection?

Last December all state and territory attorneys-general, together with federal Labor's new shadow attorney-general, Kelvin Thomson, started paving a bolder way by formally responding to Hicks' plight with the Fremantle Declaration.

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First published in The Age on February 7, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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