The Ministers Under Cloud For Possible Contempt Used Facebook To Spread Criticism Of Judges
BuzzFeed News has obtained screenshots of the now deleted statuses, which reveal federal ministers Alan Tudge and Michael Sukkar spread their controversial quotes critical of the judges on their Facebook pages, which led to dozens of similar comments.
Not only did two government ministers facing possible contempt of court charges make incendiary comments attacking judges in interviews with The Australian newspaper, they also posted the same comments to their Facebook pages, BuzzFeed News has learnt.
The Facebook statuses, which have since been deleted, show that human services minister Alan Tudge and assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar spread their criticisms against the Victorian judges to potentially tens of thousands of Facebook followers.
Screenshots of the Facebook statuses obtained by BuzzFeed News show that Sukkar and Tudge re-posted criticisms of the judiciary on Tuesday last week, the same day they appeared on the front page of the The Australian newspaper.
It led to people flooding the comments section of the Facebook statuses with highly critical remarks directed at the judiciary.
Tudge, Sukkar and health minister Greg Hunt are facing possible contempt of court charges after they criticised Victorian judges' approach to terror offence sentencing while two appeals were still taking place.
The situation has taken on an added political dimension, for if the government ministers are charged and convicted they could be kicked out of parliament, putting the Coalition’s slender majority at risk.
At a court hearing last Friday, the lawyer representing The Australian said the newspaper retracted the original story and apologised to the Victorian judges, adding "don't shoot the messenger”.
After being pressed by the judges, the Commonwealth’s solicitor-general Stephen Donaghue, representing the ministers, said the men each withdrew one of their comments and expressed regret for making them while the appeal was ongoing.
The ministers, through the solicitor-general, stopped short of apologising, and the court reserved its judgement on whether to bring contempt charges against the MPs.
As BuzzFeed News reported on Tuesday, Sukkar and Tudge also posted tweets about the judges which were then deleted after they were hauled before the Victorian Court of Appeal to explain their actions.
A legal scholar told BuzzFeed News the MPs' deleted Facebook statuses and comments would present “a difficult legal question” for the court.
“Because there have been no Facebook contempt cases in Australia, the issue of whether a person who posts a Facebook status and allows or invites comments on it is liable for any contempt arising from those comments has not been tested,” the University of Sydney’s Professor David Rolph said.
“It would be a difficult legal question.”
In the wake of the hearing, both Sukkar and Tudge deleted their Facebook statuses which had re-posted the quotes featured in The Australian.
“Our judiciary should focus more on victims and the safety of our society and less on the rights of terrorists who don’t respect our society, its laws or our people,” Sukkar wrote.
Tudge posted an image of his quote in the newspaper and wrote: “We have a crisis on our hands with people who want to kill indiscriminately and yet some judges are concerned more about the terrorists than the safety of the community.”
BuzzFeed News has been sent dozens of the public comments posted under the ministers’ statuses that are critical of the judges.
“Well said Michael. I totally agree with you. The judiciary are a disgrace & need some reeducation (sic). Living in their ivory towers & costing us a fortune. Unfortunately their weak sentences are not a deterrent,” said one commenter.
“We need to sack a few of these judges for failing to uphold our Australian laws," another said.
“Many Senior judges believe they provide public leadership on sentencing," one wrote. "A number have clearly articulated this publicly. Their job is to reflect public expectations; not play politics, and especially behind the judiciary."
Some of the comments have been redacted by BuzzFeed News on legal advice.
On reading the Facebook statuses and comments, barrister Greg Barns said it was "deeply concerning" that the senior MPs were either acting "deliberately", or were "ignorant" to what they were doing.
"It is deeply concerning that in Australia we have senior members of government who either deliberately set out to undermine the court system and the rule of law, or who are ignorant of the corrosive impact on our democracy of their actions," Barns told BuzzFeed News.
The offices of Alan Tudge and Michael Sukkar, as well as Facebook's Australian office, did not reply to requests for comment for this story.
Dr David Rolph told BuzzFeed News: “There have been no cases of contempt of court by Facebook post in Australia, but the principles of contempt of court apply to all forms of publication – hard copy and online.
“There have been no attempts yet to hold social media sites like Facebook and Twitter liable for contempt of court, but it would not be surprising in the future if there were.”