Australian Civil Liberties Union

Australia - A Free Country?

Civil liberties in Australia are constantly under threat as indicated by material set out in this chapter. But despite rhetoric about the dangers of Australia becoming a totalitarian society and an unnecessarily high degree of surveillance of citizens Australia is one of the freest countries in the world.

The Book of World Rankings confirms that Australia enjoys a high level of personal freedom, literacy, expectation of life, equality of women, political stability, and political participation. Australia is in the top 10 of 164 countries surveyed in these respects. The "Physical Quality of Life Index" in The Book of World Rankings places Australia in eighth position and the "Net Social Progress Index" which includes political stability and political participation places Australia in seventh position. Australia has no political prisoners as defined by Amnesty International. Australians do not leave Australia to seek refugee status or obtain political asylum in other countries. Our non discriminatory immigration policy allows net Asian immigration to run at 60% of all immigrants when illegal immigration and Europeans returning to Europe are taken into account. Australia takes in per capita a higher proportion of people of races different to the predominant inhabiting local race than almost any other country in the world. Capital punishment is not used as a method of punishment or deterrence. Trial by jury, habeas corpus, legal aid, and an independent legal profession and judiciary have helped to protect civil liberties. The right of all adults to vote in elections has ensured that an opposition party obtaining a majority of votes (if necessary after allocation of preferences) gains political power.

The media is relatively free and unpopular views are usually given an airing. Security agencies such as ASIO are theoretically under greater control than similar agencies in most other countries. Freedom of movement is protected including the basic freedom to walk the streets without any great apprehension of being "mugged" or arrested without cause by the police. Law reform to give greater protection against abuses of power by government and their agencies has included the establishment of the office of Ombudsman, greater "theoretic" safeguards against illegal phone tapping and a degree of independent investigation of complaints against the police. Traditions inherited from the English, Scots and Irish of tolerance of dissent, suspicion of Big Brother government, and ventilating issues in the media has enabled threats to civil liberties such as the I.D. card to be defeated. No Australian Government has been toppled by a military coup or seriously threatened by any other type of coup or disorder. Trade unionism has flourished and unions have done much to protect the working conditions and liberties of their members.

Our liberties have been secured because of the influence of institutions and traditions brought to Australia from the British Isles (which include Ireland), a spirit of tolerance in our community, again largely derived from the British Isles but reinforced by post war immigrants from Continental Europe, our relatively racially homogeneous population, our geographic isolation and our reliance on community acceptance of liberties rather than a formal Bill of Rights administered by unelected Judges.


Citizen Initiated Referenda. Reforms to protect civil liberties and ensure the wishes of voters are heeded by parliament have been suggested in the previous 25 editions of Your Rights, in the last 126 ACLU newsletters, and earlier in this chapter. But one basic reform is needed to combat the increasing tendency of parties elected to Government to ignore their election promises and ignore public opinion. The Constitution should be amended to allow legislation, repeal of legislation, and removal of officials from public office by citizen initiated referenda as used in the remarkably stable and affluent country Switzerland.

Government by referenda in Australia would help to ensure that majority opinion prevails on matters such as I.D. cards, the entry of foreign banks, media ownership, uranium mining, immigration, land rights, conservation and multi-culturalism. The elitist argument by politicians (who often ignore majority opinion on specific issues) that ordinary people are incapable of making decisions for themselves and should be ruled by politicians who know what is "best" for everyone, is anti-democratic and is contradicted by the success of rule by citizen-initiated referenda in Switzerland and elsewhere.


Another side of the coin. There is, of course another side of the coin. Appalling breaches of civil liberties have occurred in Australia in the past, both before and after white settlement in 1788. Tribal warfare between Aboriginal tribes led to widespread deaths. The arrival of Europeans, mainly Anglo Saxon Celts, led to Aborigines being dispossessed of their land. Some Aborigines were killed and a far greater number died from European diseases to which they had no immunity. Some massacres of Aborigines such as the massacre at Myall Creek led to the murderers being sentenced and killed by hanging, but other atrocities went unpunished. Gold miners were often persecuted by Government officials leading to the slaughter of miners at Eureka Stockade. Irish settlers such as the Kelly gang with anti-monarchist and anti-English sentiments were sometimes convicted of crimes on trumped-up evidence. Workers trying to set up trade unions were sometimes sacked and persecuted. Trade union and anti-conscription dissidents were jailed during WWI. Members of the Australia First Movement were jailed without trial during WWII. The use of troops to end a coal strike in 1949, attempts to ban the Communist Party in 1952 and the establishment of a political security police agency (ASIO) were all threats or potential threats to civil liberties. Excessive violence against anti-Vietnam war and anti-apartheid demonstrators, "police state" raids against Croatians in 1973, attempts to curb the independence of the A.B.C., extensions of phone tapping powers, and greater concentration of media ownership were viewed with alarm by civil liberties groups such as the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties during the period I was Secretary (1966-1980). The establishment of a Human Rights Commission, whose first research paper suggested little concern with protecting freedom of speech (and the freedoms of the 75% of the population of Anglo Saxon Celtic stock), a proposed draconian Bill of Rights which was inconsistent with many basic freedoms, and the Nazi witch-hunt, have been attacked by the ACLU but not by all "civil libertarians" as threats to civil liberties. The multi-cultural industry, some of whose leaders seem to have greater loyalty to their country of origin than to Australia, has encouraged the attempt to censor and re-write Australian history, has ignored or downplayed our Anglo Celtic heritage, and has downplayed the spirit of ANZAC, the Monarchy and the Westminster system of cabinet government. Members of the Zionist lobby have endeavoured to exclude their critics from access to the media, exclude books they dislike from libraries, obtain legislation to restrict the freedom of speech of revisionist historians, prevent PLO spokesman entering Australia, and stop the distribution of Your Rights. The refusal of the Howard government to grant a visa to David Irving, new "three strikes and you're out" penal legislation in WA., the publication of an index of sex offenders making rehabilitation of offenders difficult, and more police killings of civilians in 1997 are of concern. The ACXIOM data base is a major threat to privacy.

Most of these threats to civil liberties have occurred under conservative governments partly because conservative governments have been in power for most of the time since Federation in 1901. As I have pointed out in an article in Quadrant, there is no necessary correlation between being "left wing" or "right wing" and having a genuine commitment to civil liberties. Many so called right wing activists have a genuine commitment to basic freedoms. Some self styled "left wing" civil libertarians are unenthusiastic about defending the liberties of people whose views they abhor. Thus Brian Fitzpatrick, who did much good work in defending the liberties of "left wingers" refused to challenge the internment of members of the "right wing" Australia First Movement.

Although our traditional freedoms are often under threat, Australia is still a remarkably free and tolerant country. The freedoms we enjoy are not much in evidence in Communist countries, Moslem countries, most Asian countries, most central and South American countries, and the many tribal black dictatorships and despotisms in Africa. It is because Australia is such a free and tolerant country that many people seek to emigrate here, and refugees seek safety here from persecution in other countries.


Aborigines. The civil liberties of Aborigines have been under threat both before and after Australia was colonized in 1788. The arrival of the first fleet to establish a penal colony led to the introduction of European diseases which caused havoc among the Aborigines. The death rate from disease was much higher than occasional deaths caused by deliberate killings of Aborigines by the Europeans. Massacres of Aborigines by Europeans were rare, and those responsible for massacres were often brought to justice. Thus the members of the raiding party responsible for the massacre of about 30 Aborigines at Myall Creek were brought to trial and 7 were hanged. The Aboriginal way of life was largely destroyed, and Aborigines were discriminated against and treated as third class citizens. Elementary rights such as the right to vote were denied to them until 1967. White paternalism and discrimination reflected in laws prohibiting drinking of alcohol was resented, but the ending of this prohibition further destroyed Aboriginal culture.

Aboriginal spokesmen claim that Aborigines should be given land rights because of their prior ownership of the land by their ancestors and their special relationship to it. Land rights, now more readily available through "Mabo" legislation, and positive discrimination in their favour could lead to greater financial independence and self esteem. Aborigines are likely to have their freedoins threatened to a greater extent than non Aboriginal Australians. They are much more likely to be murdered, (almost invariably by fellow Aborigines). They are much more likely to be jailed and to die in jail. More than 100 Aborigines have died in jail since 1980 sometimes in suspicious circumstances. They are much more likely to be held in jail pending trial often because of difficulty in meeting bail conditions. Their life expectancy, standard of education, access to higher education, rate of employment, and representation in Parliament the Judiciary and the bureaucracy, is much less than that of non-Aboriginal Australians. There are a variety of reasons for this situation, and much greater expenditure of public funds in recent years has had no significant effect in improving the lot of the approximately 170,000 Aborigines among the 18.5 million Australians.


Overstated. The extent of the threat to the civil liberties of Aborigines and of discrimination against them is often overstated. Professor Blainey's comments about the attempt to disown the achievements of European settlement of Australia, and a concerted attempt to emphasise and often exaggerate the plight of Aborigines over the last 200 years should be heeded. The extent of atrocities committed in the distant past in Australia and elsewhere is often exaggerated for political reasons (for example the persecution of Jews in WWII) and the exaggerated version of the atrocities is often referred to in the media to promote particular interests. Opponents of land rights for Aborigines, including some Aborigines, claim that some of the agitation for land rights, financial compensation and a "treaty" for Aborigines, is aimed to destabilise society, delegitimise European sovereignty and secure financial rewards for non-Aborigines associated with the agitation.

The granting of extensive land rights to Aborigines could lead to what in South Africa was called Apartheid. The abolition of restrictions on drinking of alcohol by Aborigines together with ready availability of social security and other funds has led to a form of genocide through alcoholism.

Some Aborigines such as Mr Bob Liddle have objected to attempts to re-write Australian history and have conceded that European settlement brought many benefits to Aborigines. He claims that the "idyllic" picture of Aboriginal life in Australia before white settlement is misleading, because it ignores tribal warfare, savage punishments and starvation. Mr Liddle claims that people with little Aboriginal blood ("pigmentation problems") have caused a backlash against Aborigines generally, though calls for land rights, extravagant financial compensation and a "treaty". He says that reconciliation and a treaty is just a gimmick to ease the consciences of the middle class "trendies", and would do nothing to help Aborigines living in grinding poverty. Liddle suggests that Australia should treble the amount spent on Aboriginal education and that the money could be available by abolishing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission which spends $27 million a year on conferences and "public affairs" and only $1 million to combat widespread violence in Aboriginal families (Herald Sun 2/2/00), and which has wasted $2 billion in the last 10 years. He regrets that 70% of Aborigines are on some kind of welfare payment and suggests this is because of propaganda that the Government owes them a living leading to a "hand out mentality".

The Native Title Act, of 21 December, 1993, created National Native Title Tribunals, with branches in the States, to assess claims for native land by Aborigines following the confusion caused by the High Courts decision in the Mabo case. Native title is not vested in individuals, but in corporations, and is of no commercial use, as it cannot be sold. Mining companies have claimed that the Act makes mining operations uneconomic, because of demands that attempts to establish a mine must meet with the approval of Aboriginal communities and compensation paid. Some critics of the Mabo legislation say it is likely to open a Pandora's box of problems, including worsening relations between Aborigines and other Australians and a decline in mining exports. The High Court Decision in the Wik case which found that native title can co-exist with pastoral leases has created friction and uncertainty.



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