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”

Medicinal cannabis to be legalised for epileptic children

The Victorian Law Reform Commission has delivered its report on the legalisation of Medicinal Cannabis. In October, the report was tabled in Parliament by Attorney-General Martin Pakula. In December, the Government introduced the Access to Medicinal Cannabis Bill 2015 into parliament, with the intention of having the scheme in place by “early 2017”.

The proposed legislation would allow cannabis to be prescribed to “eligible patients”, which would initially be limited to people under the age of 18 who have epileptic seizures that do not respond to other treatments. This is narrower than the VLRC’s recommendations, which also included patients suffering from severe symptoms of multiple sclerosis, cancer, HIV and AIDS. However, the bill would establish an Independent Medical Advisory Committee to recommend other categories of eligible patient, which could be added by regulation.

Fulfilling an election promise, the Andrews Government asked the VLRC to investigate the best way to implement the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes. In the issues paper that began the public consultation process, the VLRC noted that the decision to legalise the drug had already been made, and the “terms of reference do not invite the Commission’s views on [the merits of] this policy”.

The VLRC received 98 submissions from lawyers, doctors, academicsactivists, community groups, and members of the general public — including one from the possibly pseudonymous Leaf van Amsterdam, who volunteered to be “a willing guinea pig” on the effects of medical marijuana.

The second reading debate on the bill will continue in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday, 9 February.

Northern Territory to resume push for Statehood

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) “supported the Northern Territory Chief Minister’s resolve for the NT to become Australia’s seventh state by 1 July 2018,” which would be the 40th anniversary of self-government in the NT.

Section 121 of the Constitution allows the Commonwealth Parliament to establish new States. It can impose conditions on the new State, including setting different rules for its representation in the Commonwealth Parliament. Given that the NT’s current population is under 250,000, this would likely be necessary. While Tasmania is over-represented compared to its population, the minimum of 5 lower-house seats required by section 24 only applies to Original States.

In 1998, a referendum was held within the Northern Territory. However, it achieved only 48.1% support, largely because the NT’s significant Indigenous population was concerned about the possible impact on their land rights without the protection of the Senate’s review functions. The NT has a unicameral parliament.

Professor Rolf Gerritson of Charles Darwin University said the same issue was likely to be a sticking point in the new campaign: “I don’t think the proposal has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting up. … I expect the land councils would oppose the repatriation of the Land Rights Act. They have in the past. I think that would be a huge stumbling block in negotiations for statehood.” However, his colleague Ken Parish proposes overcoming this obstacle by establishing an Indigenous advisory body that would have the power of veto over amendments to land rights legislation.

This would need to be included in a new constitution for the NT. At present, its legislative, judicial and executive powers are delegated by the Commonwealth under the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978 (Cth), but this is not truly a Constitution as it can be amended by an ordinary bill in the Commonwealth Parliament — as it was in 1997 to remove the NT’s power over euthanasia laws. The NT will hold a Constitutional Convention system to consult with the public over the development of a new constitution.

COAG was established in 1992 to allow for intergovernmental discussions about issues of national importance. Its members are the Prime Minister, State and Territory Premiers and Chief Ministers and the President of the Australian Local Government Association.

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.”

Amended data retention law to pass with Opposition support

Late last year, the Commonwealth Government announced its plan to require telephone and internet service providers to retain certain data about their customers for two years. The Attorney-General appeared unable to explain what the law would cover, and protests and e-petitions were organised to oppose the plan. As a result, the Telecommunications (Intercepts and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 was referred to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) for an inquiry. The committee received 204 submissions and conducted public hearings into the bill. The PJCIS includes both MHRs and Senators, from both Government and Opposition. While committees like this sometimes split along party lines and produce separate reports, in this case the PJCIS produced a unanimous report that recommended significant changes to the bill. Key changes include ensuring the scope of the data to be retained is defined in the legislation (and not delegated to the Attorney-General), and preventing the data being accessed in civil cases (such as copyright holders suing downloaders) without approval from the government. If the recommendations are adopted, the Government and the Opposition will be able to pass the legislation through the Senate despite the ongoing concerns of crossbenchers about breaches of privacy, the impact on journalists, and the lack of a warrant requirement to access the data.

Legal costs in County Court civil trials increased

As of 7 October 2014, an amendment to the County Court Civil Procedure Rules 2008 has increased the amount lawyers can charge for preparing and running cases. The County Court will no longer maintain its own scale of costs; instead, it will set rates at 80% of the Supreme Court scale. As barrister Paul Duggan explains, “Under the former County Court scale, a solicitor’s time was allowable at $277 per hour for attending a conference… That same solicitor’s time under the new County Court costs regime is now worth $296 per hour (ie 80 per cent of the Supreme Court rate of $370 per hour).” Another significant changes mean that costs will be determined on a new “standard basis” rather than the traditional “party-party” basis. This reflects a change made in the Supreme Court last year, and essentially means costs will be awarded not just for work that is “necessary”, but will also include work that is “reasonable”. Winners will recover more of their costs, which may be fairer—but the risk of paying more if you lose your case can nevertheless be a barrier for less wealthy plaintiffs.

Bans reduce passive smoking harm to children

New medical research based on the records of more than 2 million children shows that restrictions on smoking caused “rates of preterm births and hospital treatment for childhood asthma each [to fall] by more than 10 per cent”. Since 2006, all Australian jurisdictions have introduced bans designed to reduce the risk of passive smoking. The Tobacco Amendment Act 2013 (Vic) extended the ban to swimming pools, playgrounds, skate parks and children’s sporting events. The Transport Regulations were also amended to prevent smoking at bus shelters, train stations and platform tram stops.

Handlebar-cam highlights danger of “dooring”

A handlebar-cam video has highlighted the danger facing cyclists using bike lanes in the CBD. The video shows a passenger hitting the cyclist with the door of a taxi, refusing to identify himself, and blaming the cyclist for the incident. Rule 269(3) of the Road Safety Rules 2009 (Vic) makes it an offence to “cause a hazard to any vehicle by opening a door of a vehicle”. The penalty was significantly increased in 2012, because “dooring” is a serious risk to cyclists’ safety, particularly in the CBD.

Council’s consultation over cat curfew causes concern

A group of Yarra Ranges residents has organised a petition opposing the council’s new “cat curfew”, which requires owners to keep their cats confined to the owner’s property at all times. The council advertised the proposed changes in local newspapers and online, and gauged support through a web poll, but cat owners say they weren’t consulted. “Good luck with the 24-hour cat prison,” one resident wrote. “How about I lock up your children in my laundry all day?” The council says the curfew is intended to protect native wildlife in the area.

Controversial asylum cap reintroduced

The Immigration Minister has re-made a regulation capping the number of asylum seekers accepted by Australia, so that no more may be accepted this financial year. He revoked a similar cap late last year “within hours of a High Court challenge being lodged against the cap”. Refugee lawyer David Manne had intended to argue the regulation had “no sound or rational basis in policy or law”, but dropped that claim when the regulation was revoked. However, other aspects of the case continued, and the matter is listed for hearing in the High Court tomorrow.