‘Gormless’ Rattenbury should start the sackings

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“I know nothing, nothing!”… Shane Rattenbury in the guise of TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes” character Sgt Schultz . Digital cartooning: Karl Speller

“If I was the Corrections Minister, I would sack every single one of the senior officers who thought it appropriate and reasonable to leave me swinging, in blissful ignorance, in the breeze,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE. 

THE Minister for Justice and Community Safety, Shane Rattenbury has been reported as claiming that he knew nothing about “Witness J”, a prisoner in the AMC for 15 months, for whom he was, as Minister for Corrections, administratively responsible.

Jon Stanhope.

He was further reported as “slamming” the Federal government for the “disturbing” and “extraordinary” secrecy it imposed on the case.

Accepting that the trial of Witness J was conducted by the Commonwealth, and in secret, the fact that Mr Rattenbury was, as he says, subsequently kept completely in the dark about the presence of Witness J, in a jail for which he is ultimately responsible, raises some “disturbing” questions of its own about ACT government practices and the principle of ministerial responsibility.

The facts at the heart of this national scandal are sketchy, to say the least, but there are things we know because of the publication by the ACT Supreme Court of a decision handed down by Justice Burns on November 8.  

The case was brought by Witness J, also known as Alan Johns, while incarcerated in the AMC. His reason for bringing the action was to seek relief from treatment he was subjected to at the instigation of ACT government officials, who were responsible to the Minister for Corrections.

The action was brought against the director-general of the ACT Justice and Community Safety Directorate. The director-general answers directly to the minister, Shane Rattenbury. 

While it is not clear from the published decision when Witness J commenced the action, there is reference to an affidavit made by Witness J on May 1, so one may assume that the action was initiated on that day or sometime earlier. In any event it was while he was under the care and control of Minister Rattenbury.

The case was heard in the Supreme Court on July 17 at a time when Witness J was still imprisoned in the AMC.

Pertinently the director-general of the ACT Justice and Community Safety Directorate was represented in court during the hearing by the ACT Government Solicitor who had briefed K Musgrove of counsel while the Commonwealth was represented by the Australian Government Solicitor and by J Knowles of counsel.

It is interesting that Justice Burns notes in his decision: “The plaintiff asserted that he had done nothing wrong during his period as a detainee to justify any punitive action against him, and that he was distressed by the actions of Ms Justaston (general manager of the AMC) in providing information to the AFP (resulting in the execution of search warrants at his brother’s house and in his cell at the AMC) and in restricting his email access within the AMC.” 

Justice Burns further notes that before launching legal action, Witness J had, in late February and early March 2019, sought the assistance of both the ACT Official Visitor and the ACT Ombudsman in resolving his grievances about his treatment by ACT Corrective Services officers.

However, Justice Burns noted that “he (Witness J) considered their subsequent actions to be ineffectual, and he believed that they were biased.”

This history of involvement of senior members of the ACT government in aspects of the incarceration of Witness J in the AMC begs some challenging questions.

Justice Burns identified the following senior ACT government officials as having been directly involved with Witness J over the 15 months he was in the AMC.

1. The general manager of the AMC. 2. The immediate past general manager of the AMC. 3. The director-general of the Justice and Community Safety Directorate. 4. The ACT Government Solicitor. 5. The ACT Ombudsman. 6. The ACT Official Visitor. 7. The AFP.

I find it remarkable that despite the significance of this case and its obvious political and other serious ramifications that not one of these officials apparently felt the need or obligation to advise their minister or the Chief Minister, over a period of 15 months, of the existence of Witness J or the fact that he was incarcerated in our jail.

It is stunning to think that a director-general of a major and critically important ACT government directorate, such as Justice and Community Safety, would hide from his minister that he was being sued.

I also find it inconceivable that the ACT Government Solicitor would not brief the Attorney-General and the Chief Minister about a case in which he was representing one of the most senior members of the ACT Public Service in an action brought by a prisoner in the AMC, who we think may have been there for breaching a national security law.

It is similarly, I think, beyond credible that the fact that the ACT Ombudsman and the ACT Official Visitor had been contacted by and become involved with Witness J would not have been reported to relevant directors-general and ministers.

But the Minister for Corrections is an honourable man and if he says that none of these things happened, that he was kept completely in the dark, then I believe him. 

Having said that it does make him look irrelevant, foolish and gormless and, if I was him, I would sack every single one of the senior officers who thought it appropriate and reasonable to leave me swinging, in blissful ignorance, in the breeze. 

Do you ever wonder, Minister, what other secrets they keep from you? Or do you think it better that you not know?

Who is Canberra’s mysterious ‘secret prisoner’?

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Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.

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