Lawyers and law students are probably most familiar with Dyson Heydon as a former Justice of the High Court of Australia, but he is now working as the head of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.
Heydon was appointed to the High Court by the Howard government in February 2003. He retired as a Justice in 2013 and later took up the position of Commissioner.
Heydon presided over the hearing which saw Opposition Leader Bill Shorten grilled for days about his alleged involvement in union corruption during his time as Victorian and National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union.
But now it’s time for Mr Heydon to come under the spotlight.
The former judge made a fateful decision to speak at the Sir Garfield Barwick address, which was a Liberal Party fundraiser.
The proceeds of the $80 tickets sold for the dinner were to go to the NSW Liberal party, and extra donations were also welcomed.
Heydon ultimately withdrew from the event, but by then the damage was done and he was accused of having a real or perceived bias, which is inappropriate for a person heading the Commission.
Many have called for Heydon to stand aside, with Labor spokesperson for workplace relations Brendan O’Connor saying that:
“the real question here is the credibility of the Commissioner, presiding over a matter that was set up for political purposes and now we find that he has a direct association with the Liberal Party, accepting an invitation… Commissioner Heydon as a judge has said that any appearance of a conflict of interest would… disqualify one from office.”
Mark Dreyfus has also weighed in, stating that:
“this Royal Commission should never have been commenced and it ought to be dead and buried because the Royal Commissioner should stand down.”
Perhaps just as predictable of Labor’s attack is the Liberal party’s response.
Attorney-General George Brandis has described Heydon as a man of “stainless integrity”; calling the attempts to discredit Heydon a “smear campaign”. Tony Abbott concurs.
Instead, Liberals and their supporters argue that the wrong man is being hounded by the media – and that the ‘scandal’ is a convenient distraction from Shorten, who is the one who should be under scrutiny.
Should Heydon step down?
Heydon is no longer going to give his speech at the Liberal fundraiser, but the problem is far from resolved.
The Royal Commission is dealing with issues which can have significant political consequences. Indeed, Shorten’s performance on the witness stand was described as “catastrophic” and led to to calls for him to stand down.
With this in mind, it is only fair to expect that the person in charge of the Commission to be impartial, and free from any perceived bias.
And it is not hard to see how accepting an invitation to speak at a fundraiser for one political party at the same time that you are presiding over an investigation into the conduct of the opposing major political party can endanger this.
But without Heydon at its head, the Commission faces the prospect of being prolonged, or even potentially falling apart. Even if a replacement were found, he or she would be faced with the monumental task of coming up to speed with all that has occurred.
The Commission has already cost Australians $60 million, and Heydon’s resignation would likely stretch it out even longer and increase the costs.
Heydon’s supporters are standing behind him, despite the calls for his resignation and the possibility of legal action to remove him.
In the meantime, the former High Court Justice continues to preside over the Commission.