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”
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, academics, activists, 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.
The Victorian Attorney-General, Martin Pakula, has tabled in parliament the report of the 2015 Review of the Charter of Human Rights. The review was conducted by Michael Brett Young, and took into account over 100 public submissions from individuals and community groups.
The most significant recommendations relate to enforcement of the Charter. Brett Young says the current Charter is “flawed” because it “does not include an ability to enforce the standards that it sets”. He notes: “Providing for human rights without corresponding remedies sends mixed messages to the public sector and to the community about the importance of those rights.”
One proposal is to create a stand-alone cause of action for breaches of the Charter. At the moment, section 39 allows people to raise a breach of the Charter only as part of a separate legal proceeding. People who can’t “piggy-back” their human rights case on top of a separate claim are left out. The Review recommends giving legal standing to “any human being who claims a public authority has acted, or is proposing to act, incompatibly with their human rights.”
The Review also recommends expanding the remedies that VCAT and the courts can provide for breaches of the Charter. It recommends they “should have power to grant any relief or remedy that [they] considers just and appropriate, excluding the power to award damages”. The focus should be on practical remedies, such as injunctions, that would improve compliance with Charter rights.
However, the Review also recommended: “Making damages a remedy under the Charter should be considered only as an incremental step once the direct cause of action is established and there is experience of it in operation. In Chapter 8, I recommend a further review of the Charter. That review should consider the inclusion of damages as a remedy.”
The long report includes a total of 52 recommendations, including strengthening the parliamentary review of bills and making the process more transparent; allowing the Minister to revoke a local council by-law that is incompatible with human rights; and ensuring that allegations of serious human rights breaches by police can be independently investigated.
It also specifically recommends the inclusion of a new Charter right: “that every person born in Victoria has the right to a name and to be registered as soon as practicable after birth.” This was in response to a campaign by the Castan Centre for Human Rights to improve the rate of birth registration in Indigenous communities
The Victorian Government has not yet responded to the recommendations.
With separate private members’ bills introduced to parliament by the Greens, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Labor Party, and most recently a multi-party group, the Coalition Government has come under pressure to allow its members a conscience vote on the issue.
After an extensive debate in caucus, the Coalition decided defer a decision on a conscience vote until after the next election. While the Coalition allows its backbench MPs to vote against party policy, the decision locks all Ministers in to opposing the bill.
During the meeting, Abbott told his colleagues he thought a referendum to settle the issue was “extraordinarily attractive“. There is speculation that his position is motivated by a belief that a “no” vote would make the reform difficult to justify, and referendums are historically unlikely to pass without strong bipartisan support.
This new position reflects a sudden change of mind on the part of the Prime Minister. In May, following Ireland’s referendum on the issue, Abbott said, “Referendums are held in this country where there’s a proposal to change the constitution. I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that the constitution needs to be changed in this respect. Under the constitution, questions of marriage are the preserve of the Commonwealth parliament.”
That view reflected the precedent established by the Same-Sex Marriage Case (2013), in which the High Court unanimously held: “the federal Parliament has legislative power to provide for marriage between persons of the same sex”.
Other Coalition members are pushing for a plebiscite, which is a non-binding national vote on an issue. In the past, plebiscites have been held on military conscription and the national anthem. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, a plebiscite held at the same time as the next election would cost $44 million to administer, and a stand-alone plebiscite would cost $158 million.
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”.
Ireland has become the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage through a Constitutional referendum: “With the final ballots counted, the vote was 62 percent in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, and 38 percent opposed. The turnout was large — more than 60 percent of the 3.2 million eligible voters cast ballots, and only one district out of 43 voted the measure down.”
All parties in the Oireachtas (Irish parliament) support same-sex marriage. However, Article 41 the Irish Constitution “guarantees to protect the Family”, and “pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack”. Legal advice suggested this meant the common law definition of marriage “between one man and one woman” could not be altered. Though others disagreed, the government was reluctant to simply legislate and risk the law being declared invalid.
A Constitutional Convention was established, made up one-third by politicians and two-thirds by ordinary citizens, and it recommended amending the Constitution to require (not just allow) legislation to permit same-sex marriage. Ireland’s Constitution is entrenched by a referendum process requiring a simple majority of voters to approve amendments. The weekend’s proposal was to add a line to the document: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” Following the successful vote, the Oireachtas will pass the Marriage Bill 2015, and it is expected that the change will be implemented before Christmas this year.
Tony Abbott responded by saying no referendum would be held in Australia, because “I don’t think anyone is suggesting the constitution needs to be changed in this respect”. Professor George Williams agrees, pointing out that in 2013 our High Court “described marriage in gender-neutral terms as being ‘a consensual union formed between natural persons in accordance with legally prescribed requirements'” and therefore same-sex marriage would be valid under section 51(xxi) of the Constitution.
In November, crossbench senator David Leyonhjelm introduced the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 as a private member. The major parties are now debating internally how they should respond, and a big factor is whether the issue should be left to a conscience vote. The Coalition requires its MPs to vote against same-sex marriage, but senior members (along with Tony Abbott’s sister) are pushing for freedom to vote as they choose. Labor MPs are free to vote either way, but Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek is pushing to require them to vote for marriage between “all adult couples irrespective of sex”. This conscience vote debate will ultimately determine whether the Freedom to Marry Bill is passed.
The Victorian Government’s Review of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 1996 (Vic) has begun with a call for public submissions. Attorney-General Martin Pakula said, “We’re inviting all Victorians to play a role in shaping how their fundamental rights are upheld by Government into the future.” The Review has published a background brief and discussion paper to frame the discussion, and has requested even brief submissions. Meanwhile, in Queensland, independent MP Peter Wellington offered support for Labor’s minority government on condition that it would investigate introducing a statutory bill of rights modelled on the Victorian Charter. Although he has subsequently said this is a low priority, civil libertarians have begun to agitate for change. James Cook University’s Kate Galloway says she has changed her mind and now supports a bill of rights, in part because Queensland’s unicameral parliament provides fewer checks and balances on the government of the day. It is unlikely a similar debate will occur at the national level; in 2009, Tony Abbott argued, “Bills of rights are left-wing tricks to allow judges to change society in ways a parliament would never dare.”
The Victorian Law Reform Commission has released an issues paper on Medicinal Cannabis. The paper notes that the “terms of reference do not invite the Commission’s views on [the merits of] this policy”; instead, the Attorney-General asked it to consider how the policy could be implemented, and to ensure the expert advice of medical practitioners was taken into account. The two main questions it seeks to answer are “Who should be eligible to use cannabis for medicinal purposes?” and “How extensive should any Victorian medicinal cannabis scheme be?” The VLRC has asked the public for submissions in response by 30 April 2015, as it must report by 31 August. Meanwhile, the NSW government is scaling back their Law Reform Commission. It has not referred an issue for more than two years, and legal journalist Richard Ackland reports, “The position of chairman of the LRC has not been filled since James Wood retired over a year ago. No full-time commissioners have been appointed for over 12 months.” Furthermore, “All five of the existing LRC staff are seeking jobs elsewhere, and have been advised to do so by the department”; the Justice Department will instead take over the day-to-day administration of the LRC and allocate departmental staff when needed. Ackland suggests this may be an attempt by the executive to effectively abolish the NSWLRC as an independent body without parliament repealing the Law Reform Commission Act 1967 (NSW): “The commission, as a self-contained functioning entity, dedicated to independent investigation into legal policy issues, is finished.” (This approach has been taken before: when the Abbott Government’s attempt to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner was blocked in the Senate, it nevertheless redistributed staff to other agencies and closed the office, leaving the Commissioner to oversee the Freedom of Information system by himself, working on a laptop at home.)
The Abbott Government is struggling to make laws, as the AFR‘s Laura Tingle observed: “Consider the government’s legislative record for 2015. It is not good. It has passed just one piece of legislation through both houses of parliament this year… On all its major reforms, its lack of political capital now renders the government impotent in the Parliament.” In part, this is because with 33 seats the Government does not have a majority in the Senate, and must find an extra six votes from Labor (29), the Greens (10) or a diverse group of minor party and independent senators (8). (The task has become more difficult with the resignations of Jacqui Lambie and Glen Lazarus from the Palmer United Party; they must now be courted separately.) The difficulty of negotiating bills through the Senate is highlighted by the Government’s proposed higher education reforms, which involve funding cuts to be made up through deregulation of student fees. The Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, adopted a tough negotiating stance, threatening to end a scientific research program if the bill wasn’t passed. This was rejected by most of the crossbench senators, and Pyne said he had “fixed it” by splitting the bill into two parts. The first, dealing with fee deregulation, was rejected yesterday, with only three crossbenchers supporting it. Pyne now says he will reintroduce it later, potentially creating a trigger for a double dissolution election. However, Professor Anne Twomey explains that the Government would be unlikely to pull that trigger because, while the they might be able to pass the deadlocked bill through a joint sitting under section 57, “it would be likely to make it even harder for the Coalition to negotiate [other] bills through the Senate. Because 12 Senators would be elected in a State, rather than six, the quota for winning a seat would be lower. This makes it much easier for micro parties and independents to win seats.” A joint sitting to resolve a deadlock has only occurred once in Australia’s history.
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.