Sunday, March 14, 2010

We're true believers in individual rights

By Joe Hockey, a prominent Australian conservative politician

YEARS ago I was introduced to the political party that is called Liberal. Its founder, Robert Menzies, was very clear about its commitment to liberty: individual liberty as much as social liberty. He said: "We took the name Liberal because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise."

I was ready to join such a party because in my younger days I had given great thought to the political philosophy that I found most compelling. I would like to think there was a moment of epiphany, but in the end there was one writer who stood out to me, and that was John Stuart Mill. Mill's famous statement of liberal principles is: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant."

And just in case we have a tendency to gloss over words such as freedom, Mill defines it: "The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it."

The way I see it, the choice is black and white: freedom for each and every one of us. Or freedom for an elite few who want to tell the rest of us what to do. In federal parliament I represent the only party that was established to advance the cause of liberty. I am concerned that some of the liberties we take for granted are being eroded by the actions of government. I fear that step by step and in a way that barely registers in the consciousness of most people, we are losing some of the protections against the arbitrary and interfering actions of the state.

It's true that the rise of religious extremist movements and their expressed belief that only violence can lead to justice - a proposition refuted by the examples of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King - represents a challenge to societies. Our response should be to enhance and expand liberty, not to curb or curtail it.

As a liberal, a legislator and a lawyer, it is the anti-terrorism laws, enacted by a government of which I was a member, that has given me great cause to reflect on our individual rights. Under normal circumstances, much of the powers conferred on enforcement agencies are ones that I would be horrified to see any democratic government advance. In particular, I make mention of preventive detention without charge that severely limits access to legal assistance or even outside communication; control orders that limit movement and may be in force for up to 10 years; and expanded police stop, search and interrogation powers. However, I reached the conclusion that the threat to liberty of so many justified the actions we took against so few. When effectively the whole polity is under threat from attack by people determined to bring it down, then the government's responsibility is to secure the safety of its citizens.

What is important to me is that the restrictions on individual liberty contained in our anti-terrorism legislation do not become permanent. The act includes a sunset clause for some of its more draconian elements. There is a compelling case for those sunset clauses to be something less than their present 10 years. We must objectively, dispassionately and regularly review their efficacy, preferably in a bipartisan way.

And this brings me to other threats to our freedoms that are much closer to home. Some of these come from our own political leaders. For example, there was a recent suggestion that the drinking age be raised to 21. Yes, we have a problem with binge drinking. But if you are old enough to fight for your country, if you are old enough to vote, if you are old enough to be tried in a criminal court as an adult, then you are an adult, and the concept of telling someone who is 18, 19 or 20 that they are prohibited from consuming alcohol is an infringement of individual liberty.

Similarly, we see the federal government seeking to introduce laws that will effectively censor the internet. Of course we all want to stop unlawful material being viewed on the internet. There are appropriate protections in place for that and I have personal responsibility as a parent. I don't mean to suggest that there is no room for government intervention and regulation. There is probably a legitimate debate to be had about the controls (for example, via the classification system) placed on extremely violent video games.

But in other areas such as DNA testing, data matching, credit history and mobile phone tracking, we must be ever vigilant to prevent the punishment of the few becoming the entrapment of the many.

In addition to this, we should be concerned about the rapid proliferation of closed-circuit television cameras across our cities. Even in my local area CCTV was set up to protect the welfare of revenue-raising parking meters from vandals, but they have inadvertently provided a viewing platform of the community going about its business.

In every state and territory there is an endless and rarely challenged demand for expansion in police powers, taken to extremes in Western Australia with a proposal to allow virtually unrestricted stop-and-search powers for police. I understand similar proposals also have won favour in Victoria. Surely the Australian interpretation of liberty extends to the right of an individual to go about their daily business without being subject to a random body search by police.

Finally, the government has before it the report of the [Frank] Brennan committee, which recommends a human rights act. The federal Coalition has indicated its opposition to such a bill, a position I support. My concerns about a human rights act lie in the power and authority that such an act would give to the judiciary. Such responsibilities would be undemocratic and ultimately undermine the independence of our courts.

A conflict often occurs between different human rights. Many, if not all, involve contestable propositions that fall outside the usual role of judges to interpret the law through the prism of legal principles; they are essentially political rather than legal judgments. For example, the courts could be asked to judge whether a law that bans tobacco advertising infringes on free speech. This is not a legal issue but one that should fall within the responsibility of democratically elected legislators to determine.

I am a true believer in the separation of powers. If courts are making findings on contestable and essentially political issues, politicians and those in the community who support the actions of the parliament will find themselves criticising their findings. Unwittingly, judges will find themselves players rather than arbiters and be the subject of the full weight of public opinion and sanction. There are better ways to guarantee human rights.

Ultimately it is what beats in the hearts of Australians that forms the best protection. Our desire for a fair go, our healthy scepticism and our belief in self-reliance, diversity and our multicultural society are the values that have guided Australia's development. It is the duty of us all to ensure every new generation of Australians - whether native-born or recently arrived - share those ideals.


Old-style teacher investigated for challenging the self-esteem gospel

A TEACHER accused of verbally abusing students by telling one he should die believes he is being punished because modern kids are too sensitive. Former Doncaster Secondary College teacher Edward Wolf, who has 40 years' experience in education, said when he moved from an Altona school to the Doncaster school, he believed the children had an air of "self-entitlement" and the student and parent population was like "Footscray with money".

Mr Wolf, who is facing misconduct charges before a Victorian Institute of Teaching disciplinary panel, said he used firm words with unruly students who disrupted class or left the classroom without permission. He denied telling misbehaving Year 10 pupils they were "idiots", but admitted telling one troublesome boy to "shut the f--k up" and another that "just because your dad wanted to get his rocks off, I have to deal with you".

Mr Wolf admitted kicking a student's table from under her feet because she refused to take them down from the desk when her dress and raised legs were "immodest". He also admitted telling a boy named Dyson, who refused to stop banging on a wall during class, to "do what your name says - die, son".

"Considering what they have said to me and other teachers, I don't see them as that sensitive," Mr Wolf said. "If you give it, you should be able to take it. Teachers only have words as a means to work with students and if those words are efficacious, then in that context I consider them appropriate."

Mr Wolf, 61, who wants to retain his teaching registration, said he now realised there was an emotional impact to his strong language. "I am aware that students are now very much more sensitive than they have (been) in the past," he said.

Several alleged incidents of coarse or highly personal language occurred from 1998 to 2008. The panel heard this week that Mr Wolf became angry when a group of Year 10 students left his class without permission in 2008. One male student, now 18, said Mr Wolf started abusing him and two other students when they returned to the room, but the boys knew they had mucked up. "Personally, I did not take it to heart, it was just a teacher lashing out. In one ear, out the other," one student told the hearing. Another said: "We were very rowdy, we were hard to control. We, one time, took it too far and Mr Wolf snapped."

The VIT panel will hand down its findings on a date to be set.


More bureaucratic waste of tax dollars

A NSW public school compelled to use a government-approved contractor for renovations to its school hall under the Building the Education Revolution scheme says it was quoted $200,000 more than a neighbouring private school, which used a local contractor.

St Paul's Lutheran School and Henty Public School in the rural town of Henty, near Wagga Wagga, in the state's southwest, each received $850,000 under the federal government's $6.2 billion school infrastructure scheme. Henty Public School hoped to restore its hall and renovate the school's 1950s toilet block, but was unable to refurbish the toilet block after it was given a $230,000 quote from contractor Laing O'Rourke for building management and design of the hall. As a private school, St Paul's managed its own funds and employed a local contractor who used the money to build three classrooms, a toilet block and playground area, with $31,000 for building management and design.

Kellie Penfold, who has three children at Henty Public School and is the secretary of the P&C, said the school community felt "ripped off" to see the neighbouring private school get more for its dollar, while the local contractor was also more efficient. "By the time we were getting costings, they had nearly finished construction," Ms Penfold said. "The P&C felt that if the school was able to self-manage its own project, we would have been able to deliver more money to our community -- because we would have used local suppliers -- and secondly, so much more infrastructure for our kids," she said. "For $850,000 we could have built a new building . It was a lot of money to spend on renovations."

Ms Penfold wrote to Laing O'Rourke, the state government-appointed managing contractor for the Riverina region, in December to question the comparably "high charges". The company's response was that it needed approval from the government at every stage of the design and construction process and was also "required to report weekly and monthly to the Government on a myriad of matters". "Our work is thorough, well planned and will lead to buildings that are sustainable and ready for long-term use, all delivered in a tight time frame," the letter says.

A spokesman for Education Minister Julia Gillard said the program was "supporting jobs in local communities in response to the global recession, while building Australia's educational and productive capacity for the future." [Stupid PR spin that translates as "Drop dead"]


Weasel words about illegal immigrants to Australia

With Christmas Island full to the gunwales, the boatpeople issue is set to re-emerge, and language will play a crucial role in this political debate

In the long-running controversy about people-smuggling, language often has been misused to disguise what is going on. Instead of relaying the facts about people-smuggling, carefully chosen words are creating an entirely false impression. George Orwell would be turning in his grave.

We have long debated the term "illegal arrivals". Unfair labelling was the call, and most people now use the bureaucratic "unauthorised boat arrivals" or the less precise "asylum-seekers" - less precise because there is an important distinction between these asylum-seekers and those camped in, say, Sudan; namely that the former have circumvented normal processes and arrived on our shores without visas.

When people downplay the boat arrivals issue by trumpeting the numbers of asylum-seekers who arrive by plane they neatly skirt around this point: that those arriving by plane arrive legally, with visas in hand. They may illegally overstay those visas and then claim asylum, but the fact remains they arrived legally, with authorities knowing who they were and where they came from.

Orwell believed language should be used to simply and directly convey what we mean. He identified that sloppy use of language could contaminate political debate, and vice versa: "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

And so it is that every few days or so we are alerted to another boat load of asylum-seekers being intercepted by Australian customs or navy patrols. This is a most misleading use of the English language. The skippers of these people-smuggling boats know exactly where they are going and what they want. They head for Australian waters, usually near Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island, and their aim is to be met by an Australian vessel and taken for processing.

Whatever individual Australians think about changes to our border protection regime, rest assured the smugglers and their customers know the new rules: no trip to Nauru; no detention in the desert; no temporary protection visa; three months maximum in the Christmas Island centre; then off to mainland Australia with a visa.

So these boats and their passengers are not intercepted by Australian vessels, they seek them out. To say they are intercepted is to say I was intercepted at the Martin Place station in Sydney yesterday by the train to Central. Lucky I had a ticket ready.

The latest example of this came on Thursday. Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor issued a formulaic media release saying, "Border Protection Command today successfully intercepted a suspected irregular entry vessel." It went on to say that the group of 47 people would be taken to Christmas Island where they: "will undergo security, identity and health checks. Their reasons for travel will also be established."

To save the minister some time, allow me to suggest their reason for travel was to get to Christmas Island and receive visas to live in Australia.

The same formulation was used two days earlier for a group of 57 people, three days earlier for a boat with 47 people on board, four days before that with 13 people, two days with 45, and again just six days earlier for a vessel with 50 on board. Five days before that there was another arrival, but this time the media release trumpeted: "Border Protection Command Rescues 45 people."

This underscores the point. When the boats are not intercepted in good time, they ring for help and arrange a rescue. You will not be surprised that, according to the minister's media release: "The people on board the vessel have indicated they wish to come to Australia and will be taken to Christmas Island." These announcements are farcical.

There is a bit of self-censorship of these arrivals going on in the media, so that quite often the arrivals receive little or no coverage. But, when they do, the government's language is usually repeated by journalists and it gives a false impression. Newspapers, websites and radio bulletins proclaim that "Australian authorities intercepted the boat" or that a boat "has been intercepted".

Whether we agree with the government's policies or not, let's not create the impression that our vessels are out there intercepting unauthorised boats, preventing them coming to Australia. Let's not pretend these rendezvous are not welcomed by the asylum-seekers. Let's not confuse rescues and interceptions with successful deliveries of asylum-seekers into the hands of Australian authorities.

This is not to say the Australian personnel don't have a difficult and dangerous job. As we have seen, confusion and miscommunication can have disastrous consequences, especially when the expectation is a simple tow to Christmas Island.

But let us be clear. The only intercepting that occurs is at Christmas Island if arrivals are found not to be legitimate asylum-seekers.


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