Both the prime minister and the Foreign Minister are trained lawyers. As part of the training they would have been imbued with some of the most profound and enduring concepts of the common law. These include such fundamental points as the presumption of innocence; the onus of proof being upon the accuser; the standard of proof in serious cases being very high; that the evidence should be considered by an impartial arbiter; that the conclusion should be based upon admissible evidence; and that one should refrain from prejudicial pre-trial statements at the risk of being held in contempt of Court.
Both politicians frequently express their belief in the “rules based international order” and the “rule of law”, both phrases acknowledging a support of a legal based process in the conduct of national and international affairs.
That their professed support for basic notions of justice and legal process is no more than a rhetorical device was made abundantly clear in the joint media release of 27 March 2018 and the subsequent joint press conference in which they unleashed a barrage of criticism at Russia over that countries alleged involvement in the alleged nerve gas attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English provincial town of Salisbury.
One of the notable omissions from Turnbull and Bishop’s media release and press conference was any reference to the word “alleged.” It was simply assumed by the pair that Russia was guilty and deserving of punishment.
Their professed outrage did not even have the benefit of originality. The United Kingdom government had sent out a six-slide PowerPoint presentation to 80 foreign embassy officials in Moscow. That document was leaked and its contents published in the Kommersant business daily.
In that document, the section headed “A New Phase of Russian Aggression” the following points were made:
1. A military grade Novichok nerve agent was positively identified by experts at Porton Down, an 0PCW accredited laboratory.
2. Novichok is a group of agents developed only by Russia and not declared under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
3. Its use is a violation of the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons under article 1 of the CWC.
4. It was the first use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.
5. We are without doubt that Russia is responsible. No country bar Russia has the combined capability, intent and motive. There is no plausible alternative explanation.
In a separate slide headed “A Long Pattern of Russian Malign Activity” the United Kingdom government listed a series of “malign” incidents, which they attributed to Russia. These included the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006; the 2008 invasion of Georgia; the 2014 occupation of Crimea and destabilization of Ukraine; the 2014 shooting down of MH 17; the 2016 interference in the United States presidential election; and now the attempted assassination of the Skripals.
All of these points were faithfully echoed by Turnbull and Bishop in the media release and the joint press conference. Let us look briefly at each of the five bullet points listed above and repeated by Turnbull and Bishop.