Australia sues Japan to end whaling program

An international legal challenge to Japanese whaling in the Antarctic has been upheld. Australia’s counsel, Bill Campbell QC, told the International Court of Justice, “Japan seeks to cloak its ongoing commercial whaling in the lab coat of science. It simply is not science.” The court agreed, ruling that the scale of the whaling operation and its limited scientific reporting suggested it was really a commercial venture. The judges ordered Japan to “revoke any extant authorization, permit or licence to kill, take or treat whales”. The ICJ is a United Nations court with jurisdiction to hear disputes about international treaties. Australia and Japan are both signatories to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

Australian company accused of foreign bribery

According to The Age, “Infrastructure and mining giant Thiess may have breached Australian bribery laws by paying Indonesian police and military officials in return for security at its mines.” The police and soldiers are accused of beating workers protesting over their working conditions. Most laws only prohibit conduct within the relevant jurisdiction, but the Commonwealth Criminal Code imposes “extended geographical jurisdiction” for certain crimes. It prohibits bribery that occurs overseas, if the offender is an Australian citizen, resident, or company, allowing them to be tried here.

Queensland restores gendered language to law

Throughout the Crime and Misconduct and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 (Qld), the Queensland government has included amendments what would omit the word “chairperson” and replace it with “chairman”. James Cook University lecturer Kate Galloway argues that although this has no legal effect, it is nevertheless “not only a retrograde step, but an indefensible one.” She argues: “There is certainly no harm in retaining the existing ‘chairperson’. The proposed change reinforces masculine norms that form an implicit barrier to women in achieving leadership roles within the law, and a precedent for wider use of masculine language as a means of excluding and potentially discriminating against women through the law.”

VCAT losers will soon pay winners’ fees

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Bill 2014 was passed by parliament this week. It will allow VCAT to order the losing side to pay the fees of the winner (but not their full legal costs). The Tenants Union is concerned that this will “cause further harm to a frequently economically disadvantaged section of our community”. On the other hand, the Consumer Law Action Centre says the impact of last year’s fee increases may be reduced, because winners could now have their fees reimbursed. A proposed amendment to require VCAT to specifically consider “financial hardship” before making a fees order was defeated.

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.

Governor-General to be sworn in and knighted

Australia’s first female Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, has finished her five year appointment. Her successor, Peter Cosgrove, will be sworn in today. He will also be awarded a knighthood (and Ms Bryce a dameship) after the Prime Minister asked the Queen to reintroduce those honours in Australia. The awarding of honours is a royal prerogative, though it is generally exercised on advice from the government.  Knights and dames had been removed from the Australian honours system in 1986 at the request of the Hawke government.

Mounting complaints about Speaker’s bias

Question Time today was interrupted for an unusual procedural matter: “For the first time since 1949, an opposition was trying to move a motion of no confidence in the Speaker of the House of Representatives.” As the MP charged with ensuring that parliamentary debates and votes run fairly and smoothly, the Westminster system requires the Speaker to carry out her functions impartially. Shortly after Bronwyn Bishop’s appointment last year, Dr Paul Williams expressed concerns: “her decision to reject the tradition of Speakers staying clear of party room meetings where parliamentary tactics are discussed [means] Bishop will now be privy to Coalition attack plans.” Last week, Professor Peter van Onselen complained that “she has gotten worse”: “Bishop throws Labor MPs out of the chamber with gay abandon. … She enters the partisan debate, throwing quips and smirks into the equation in a way that should be beneath the Speaker.” However, the Opposition’s motion was doomed to failure due to the balance of power in the chamber.

Ombudsman slams suicide-friendly prisons

The Victorian Ombudsman, George Brouwer, has produced a scathing report on safety in the state’s prisons. In addition to problems caused by overcrowding, his report identifies suicide as a significant risk: “there have been six prisoners in the past six years (several of whom had mental health issues) who committed suicide by hanging, nearly all in cells which did not comply with the cell and fire safety guidelines”. Brouwer notes that 38% of cells still have “hanging points”. The Government has responded by pointing out the significant cost of implementing the recommendations; however, the Ombudsman notes that the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended the removal of hanging points over 22 years ago.

Crime statistics to be independent of police

A new, independent Crime Statistics Agency will be established in July, removing responsibility from Victoria Police. The accuracy of published crime statistics has been controversial: “in 2011 … an ombudsman’s report found police released incomplete and misleading data on the eve of the 2010 state election claiming a big drop in CBD assaults. Simon Overland resigned as police chief commissioner hours after the report was released.” The new agency will ensure crime data is not manipulated. Police Minister Kim Wells said, “It’s important that they work independently of Government and independent of police.

New laws to prevent child abuse cover-ups

The Napthine Government has introduced a bill to create new criminal offences to ensure that organisations protect children from abuse, remove known child abusers, and report suspected abuse to authorities. The Premier said, “This sends a clear, unambiguous message to the Victorian community: if you are aware of child sexual abuse you must speak up, you must report it to the police. The era of cover-up and silence is over.” The proposals are a response to the report of a parliamentary inquiry, which recommended changes to the criminal law. The Crimes Amendment (Protection of Children) Bill 2014 was read for the first time on Tuesday.