1×02: Idle Persons and Incorrigible Rogues

In this episode of Hearsay, I’ll dig in to the issue of homelessness, looking at how a media campaign can lead to new criminal laws, how we have criminalised poverty and homelessness through history, and how the City of Melbourne is empowered to create new crimes (even if the Lord Mayor doesn’t really understand that’s what he is proposing). Are we returning to the old days of locking up “idle persons” and “incorrigible rogues”? Continue reading “1×02: Idle Persons and Incorrigible Rogues”

High Court rules donation bans, caps compatible with free speech

The High Court last week made an important decision on the implied constitutional freedom of political communication. Jeff McCloy, a property developer, challenged the validity of NSW restrictions on political donations. The High Court’s ruling was important because it upheld the laws, clarified the test to be applied in “implied freedoms” cases, and confirmed that equality of participation in democracy was a “grand underlying principle” of the Constitution.

In its 2013 Unions NSW v New South Wales decision, the High Court ruled that a ban on all non-voters making political donations was an impermissible restriction of the implied freedom of political communication. While the government claimed it was aimed at eliminating corruption, the Court held there was no clear link between the challenged provisions and that purpose, and therefore the law failed the Lange test.

This prompted McCloy to challenge provisions in the Election Funding, Expenditure and Disclosures Act 1981 (NSW), which bans property developers from making political donations. Applying the logic of the precedent, he argued there was no reason to believe property developers were more likely to make corrupt donations than other people, therefore there was no rational connection to anti-corruption purposes.

However, a majority of the Court firmly rejected this argument, finding that “Property developers are sufficiently distinct to warrant specific regulation”, referring to “recent history” in NSW including a number of reports by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). The law was therefore appropriately adapted to the legitimate purpose of preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.

(The Court’s reliance on ICAC was interesting because the plaintiff’s illegal donations to Liberal Party MPs were uncovered through an ICAC investigation. In his testimony, McCloy said, “They all come to see me for money, I feel like a walking ATM, some days.”)

The Unions NSW case also struck down a combined cap on election spending by political parties and any affiliated industrial organisations. Although the law did not specify any particular target, the plaintiffs pointed out the Labor Party had maintained affiliation with trade unions for more than a century. Hayne J expressed concern this may have been the true target of the law, asking the NSW Government’s counsel, “Is there any other party to which 95G(6) presently has application? … Are we to ignore 100 years of history in this country, Mr Kirk? Are we to shut our eyes to what has been observed over the last decades?” The Court again held there was no rational link to an anti-corruption purpose, so the combined spending cap was unconstitutional.

McCloy sought to expand on this precedent, taking aim at the Act’s general cap on political donations. He argued “that the ability to pay money to secure access to a politician is itself an aspect of the freedom and therefore the subject of constitutional protection”. The High Court majority emphatically rejected this argument, holding that donation caps “are not only compatible with the system of representative government; they preserve and enhance it.”

They noted that in the absence of limits on donations, wealthy citizens may have a greater influence over our political system than others. The majority explicitly held that “Equality of opportunity to participate in the exercise of political sovereignty is an aspect of the representative democracy guaranteed by our Constitution.” Professor Graeme Orr argues this is the most significant aspect of the decision, because it balances the competing values of liberty and equality.

Another significant aspect of the decision was the Court’s attempt to clarify the second limb of the Lange test, which requires that a law is “appropriately adapted” to achieve its purpose. However, over a series of cases there was disagreement about how to judge this, and in particular whether this was a test of “proportionality”. In August this year, Sir Anthony Mason (who was Chief Justice from 1987-1995) gave a speech on Proportionality and its Use in Australian Constitutional Law, in which he identified three competing versions of the concept emerging from past High Court precedents.

In McCloy, the High Court majority confirmed that “proportionality analysis of some kind is part of the Lange test”, and clarified what this meant in the Australian context. They said it did not simply “involv[e] matters of impression, such as whether the legislative measures go too far, or not far enough”. Specifically, “there are at least three stages to a test of proportionality. … [T]hey are whether the statute is suitable, necessary, and adequate in its balance.” That final stage requires the Court to consider whether the burden on an implied Constitutional right outweighs the benefit of the law.

Critics of “judicial activism” argue that this allows unelected judges to interfere with the power of the Parliament to determine priorities and legislate accordingly. However, the High Court majority explicitly rejects this criticism: “The fact that a value judgment is involved does not entitle the courts to substitute their own assessment for that of the legislative decision-maker. … However, the courts have a duty to determine the limit of legislative power affecting constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, and assessments by courts of the public interest and benefit in a piece of legislation are commonplace. … To say that the courts are able to discern public benefits in legislation which has been passed is not to intrude upon the legislative function.”

Professor Anne Twomey suggests the decision may prompt legal change in jurisdictions around Australia:  “the High Court has opened the way for more comprehensive reform of political donations at the state and federal level. The excuse that it ‘might be unconstitutional’ no longer has legs.”

Bill to strip citizenship from vandals and terrorists

The Abbott Government has introduced its citizenship-stripping bill — called the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015 — into the House of Representatives. It applies to dual nationals, and contains three new ways they can lose their Australian citizenship: by committing certain crimes, by serving a declared terrorist organisation, or by engaging in certain conduct connected with terrorism.

Under a proposed new section 35A of the Australian Citizenship Act 2007, a dual national “ceases to be an Australian citizen” if and when they are convicted of specified Commonwealth crimes, described as “terrorist offences and certain other offences”. UNSW professor George Williams says the list of offences is too broad, and “appears to cover low-level offences that have only a very minor connection to terrorism”.

Williams points out that damaging Commonwealth property is on the list. This offence is unconnected to terrorism or sedition, and the offender doesn’t even need to know the damaged property belongs to the Commonwealth. If a dual national committed a minor act of vandalism — such as scratching a plaque on the banks of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin — their Australian citizenship would be forfeit.

Other parts of the Bill are more clearly tied to terrorism. Under the existing section 35, Australian citizenship “ceases” when a dual national “serves in the armed forces of a country at war with Australia”. The new version would extend this to include “fight[ing] for, or [being] in the service of, a declared terrorist organisation” (there are currently 20 organisations on this list).

The current legislation allows a dual national to apply to the Minister to voluntarily renounce their Australian citizenship. The proposed new section 33AA introduces the concept of “renunciation by conduct”: where a person “acts inconsistently with their allegiance to Australia”, this will be treated as if they had applied to renounce their citizenship. The conduct that triggers this provision ranges from supporting a terrorist organisation through to actually engaging in a terrorist act.

All of these provisions are framed as being automatic, triggered by the action of the person concerned. The Explanatory Memorandum states: “By acting in a manner contrary to their allegiance to Australia, the person has chosen to step outside of the formal Australian community”, and therefore they are effectively removing their own citizenship. However, in practical terms the person’s citizenship will continue to be recognised until the Government makes make a factual determination that the triggering conduct has occurred.

The Bill provides: “If the Minister becomes aware of conduct because of which a person has, under this section, ceased to be an Australian citizen, the Minister must give written notice to that effect at such time and to such persons as the Minister considers appropriate.” Furthermore, the Minister can decide to “rescind the notice”, and they must exercise these powers to issue and rescind notices personally.

While Immigration Minister Peter Dutton claims the law “operate[s] automatically, without a decision from the minister”, the Bill puts the Minister in the position of determining (by “becoming aware”) on behalf of the Government whether the “automatic” cessation of citizenship has occurred. This aspect of the proposal will likely come under scrutiny, as the role of the Minister in the decision-making process was the focus of Cabinet and public debate before the release of the bill.

The bill expressly provides that “[t]he rules of natural justice do not apply in relation to the powers of the Minister”. Natural justice is also referred to as procedural fairness, and generally requires an unbiased decision-maker, a right to be heard about a decision that will affect you, and a decision based on cogent evidence. Chief Justice French has said, “I do not think it too bold to say that the notion of procedural fairness would be widely regarded within the Australian community as indispensable to justice.” Removing these basic standards raises the prospect of unfair decisions being made.

Section 39 of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 prohibits the Commonwealth from taking administrative action “on the basis of any communication in relation to a person made by the Organisation not amounting to a security assessment”. The Bill exempts the Minister from complying with this restriction, thereby allowing any information provided by ASIO to be relied upon; Bret Walker SC argues this amounts to “substituting a ministerial opinion based on untested hearsay and intelligence for the verdict of a jury”. ASIO has a history of making errors in even formal security assessments, so any move to rely on preliminary information increases the risk.

The Bill states that “[a]n instrument exercising any of the Minister’s powers under this section is not a legislative instrument.” This is designed to ensure the Minister’s notices are not covered by the Legislative Instruments Act 2003, which would require them to be presented to Parliament, and would make them susceptible to disallowance by a vote of either House.

The Bill also provides that “section 47 does not apply in relation to the exercise of [the Minister’s] powers” — exempting the Minister from the usual requirement to notify the affected person of the decision. As a result, the loss of citizenship under the Bill would be kept secret from the person concerned.

While they would retain the right to seek judicial review of the Minister’s decision to issue a notice, they would not discover this need until they sought to exercise a citizenship right and were refused. For example, a person who found themselves in difficulty overseas and sought consular assistance would be refused, and may not be in a practical position to challenge the decision. Even if they could commence a challenge, they may not know why they had lost their citizenship, and they may not be allowed to see the ASIO intelligence the Minister relied upon.

Labor has indicated it supports the general thrust of the Bill, so it is likely to be passed by Parliament. However, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten indicated he had reservations about some of the details.

If it passes, the Bill is likely to face a High Court challenge. Citizenship law expert Professor Kim Rubenstein told SBS: “The loss of citizenship is a very dramatic change in a person’s status in our democratic system and so the question is: to what extent is there a restriction on the Commonwealth’s power to remove someone’s citizenship and deprive them of their citizenship? There are questions of the separation of powers for automatic loss of citizenship.”

Government to unveil controversial citizenship bill

The Abbott Government is expected to introduce a bill to Parliament today to allow the removal of Australian citizenship from dual citizens who fight with groups such as Islamic State. The Prime Minister says action is needed because there are “currently 120 Australians fighting with Daesh, also known as the Islamic State, with another 160 Australians supporting them through financing and recruiting”.

The issue caused embarrassment for the Government earlier this month when its preliminary discussions were leaked. Cabinet discussions are held in strict confidentiality, allowing ministers to “discuss proposals and a variety of options and views with complete freedom”. However, discussions of the citizenship proposal were revealed by the media, and six ministers reportedly expressed strong opposition to the original version of the plan. These included several whose portfolios are closely related to the issue, including the Attorney-General, the Defence Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister.

A key sticking point was the proposal to give power to the Minister, rather than the Courts, to decide when to remove citizenship: “The deputy leader of the National Party went to the heart of the matter: ‘If you don’t have enough evidence to charge them in a court, how can you have enough evidence to take away their citizenship?’ According to participants, Dutton replied: ‘That’s the point, Barnaby. You don’t need too much evidence. It’s an administrative decision.'” Conservative constitutional expert Greg Craven described the plan as “plain dumb”: “even if this proposal ever did hit the statute books, it would last as long as a Melbourne warm spell. It would be irredeemably unconstitutional. By conferring a profoundly jud­icial power on a minister, it mocks the separation of powers. It would be swatted down like a bug by the High Court.”

In its defence, Abbott said the plan was “precisely what was recommended by the former independent national security monitor Bret Walker” in a 2014 report. That report does recommend “the introduction of a power for the Minister for Immigration to revoke the citizenship of Australians, where to do so would not render them stateless”. However, Walker says this power should only arise “after a criminal trial”. He told the ABC, “I’d like to see something in the nature of a criminal trial. That is not conducted by a minister leafing through a manila folder with intelligence that will never be presented in a court of law to be tested.”

The Government maintains that any decision made by the Minister would be subject to judicial review. This is not the same as an appeal, and would allow people to challenge decisions on very narrow grounds relating to the process — and not including the merits of the decision. As the Immigration Minister insists, “the government’s not going to have the court second-guessing ministerial decisions”. Tony Abbott expressed a similar view this week: “They say they’ll put you on trial. Well, fair enough. But we all know the perils of that.” Supreme Court Justice Lex Lasry tweeted a riposte: “The perilous feature of putting people on trial is fairness.”

While the text of a bill has not been released, the latest version of the proposal to be floated in the media would amend the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 to make the cancellation of citizenship automatic when a person commits an act of terrorism or fights with a group such as Islamic State. This would remove ministerial discretion from the process, but would still allow an opportunity for the underlying fact to be tested in court. Section 35 of the Act already uses this system where a person serves with an enemy nation’s army — however, it has never been used, and therefore nobody has had standing to challenge its constitutionality. While Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull insists “[t]he principles are well understood”, Charles Darwin University law lecturer Ken Parish believes it is “likely invalid”.

Anzac tweet sacking prompts free speech debate

On Anzac Day, SBS sports journalist Scott MacIntyre made a series of posts on his personal Twitter account, criticising the historical behaviour of Australian soldiers, and people who celebrate the day. While his comments reflected the views of some historians, he was nevertheless sacked by SBS for breaching its social media policy. The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, explains that while the High Court has recognised an implied Constitutional freedom of political communication, it “is not a personal right for citizens. Rather it is a constitutional limit on the legislative powers of Parliament.” Therefore, an employment contract can restrict speech. Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson argues it is “absurd” to see this as “a free speech violation”, because “[n]o one is guaranteed a job. Employers are not compelled to put up with behaviour that harms their public reputation”, even if that behaviour is outside the workplace. Swinburne University’s Jason Wilson says this “classical liberal” approach to human rights is flawed, because “it makes little practical difference if it’s your boss or the state telling you to shut up”. He argues the current system “puts the wealthy firmly in charge of the lower orders, without any pesky democratic interference.” (While the High Court has not directly addressed this issue, in 2013 a Federal Court judge ruled that the implied freedom “does not provide a licence to breach a contract of employment”.)

Is there a human right to a healthy environment?

The latest video in Castan Centre’s Have You Got That Right? series considers the right to a healthy environment. Monash University’s Associate Professor Adam McBeth says while the UN does not yet explicitly recognise it, “a new right to a healthy planet may continue to be fleshed out, emerging from our existing rights” to health, food, water, and the like. South Africa’s constitutional bill of rights includes section 24, which protects human rights “to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being” and “to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations”. In a decision upholding the government’s right to prevent the construction of a new petrol station, Claasen J of the South African High Court (roughtly equivalent to an Australian State Supreme Court) ruled that s 24 meant “[p]ure economic principles will no longer determine in an unbridled fashion whether a development is acceptable. Development, which may be regarded as economically and financially sound, will in future be balanced by its environmental impact…” In 2014, in a report considering the right to a healthy environment around the world, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment observed that “over 90 national constitutions recogniz[e] some form of the right”, including 30 African countries, but that “implementation was the major issue”.

High Court upholds guilt-by-association law

In its Tajjour v NSW judgment delivered yesterday, the High Court ruled on a challenge to section 93X of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), a guilt-by-association offence that bans “habitually consorting” with convicted criminals. The High Court upheld the law’s validity and rejected the plaintiffs’ three arguments. First, applying the Lange test, a majority of the Court accepted that s 93X burdens political communication, but said it is still valid because “it is reasonably appropriate and adapted, or proportionate, to serve the legitimate end of the prevention of crime”. Second, the Court reiterated its previous rulings that there is no “free-standing” implied freedom of association in the Constitution—association is only protected to the extent that it is a form of political communication. Third, the Court unanimously held that freedom of association under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights could not restrict State Governments because it has not been ratified by Commonwealth legislation.

Qld repeals laws before High Court “implied right” challenge

Laws restricting political campaigns by Queensland trade unions were quietly repealed on Wednesday night, in the face of a High Court challenge. In 2013, new rules requiring industrial organisations to conduct a ballot of members before spending more than $10,000 on political campaigns were introduced. Affected unions launched a High Court challenge, saying that the cost and delay caused by the processes were a burden on their freedom of political communication. The explanatory notes for the repeal bill say the decision was prompted by the “recent decision of the High Court in Unions NSW v New South Wales“, which “indicates that the High Court will read widely the implied right of freedom of communication on government and political matters”. (In that case, the NSW government’s attempt to cap political spending by unions was unanimously held to be an illegitimate burden on the implied freedom.) The Queensland Attorney-General, Jarrod Bleijie, has been forced to defend his performance as a minister; the Court of Appeal struck down a law allowing him to jail people despite court orders to release them because it breached the separation of powers, and his anti-bikie laws are currently before the High Court.

The Castle is Aus lawyers’ favourite legal film

A survey of Australian lawyers has determined that their favourite legal film of the last 40 years is The Castle. The movie follows the Kerrigan family’s bid to prevent the compulsory acquisition of their home to build a new airport runway. It includes two famous courtroom scenes, the first involving “the vibe” of the Constitution, and the second focussed on s 51(xxxi)’s requirement that Commonwealth acquisitions of property must be “on just terms”. (In reality, neither argument would prevent their eviction—while the “special value” of the land to its owner must be considered, this “cannot be used to compensate an owner for the sentimental value of the land”.) The Castle has previously been identified as the film that “best represents the real Australia”.

Call to Constitutionally enshrine “wild law”

RMIT ecologist Peter Fisher has called for an amendment to enshrine environmental protection in the Constitution. He proposes recognition of the rights of plants and animals, with the following text: “The Commonwealth of Australia celebrates the wondrous ecology of Australia, the value of its land and surrounding seas, and recognises the right of species to exist in a sustainable way in all its natural regions.” The South African Bill of Rights includes a human right “to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations”; Fisher’s idea is an example of wild law, which goes further in extending legal rights to other species.