Ireland amends constitution to allow gay marriage; Australia debates conscience vote

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.

Bias concerns force Qld Chief Justice to withdraw

Turmoil in the Supreme Court of Queensland continued yesterday, with Chief Justice Tim Carmody dramatically withdrawing from a case, and the President of the Court of Appeal Margaret McMurdo declaring she “cannot sit with him again on any court.” The Chief Justice’s appointment was controversial from the outset, with senior lawyers and judges expressing concern that he is politically biased and underqualified for the the role. Those concerns have not subsided.

Retiring Justice Alan Wilson gave a speech accusing Carmody CJ of calling other judges “snakes” and “scum”. The speech also condemned his work ethic: “The Chief Justice has not sat in an actual hearing since the 15th of February this year. He has withdrawn himself from all published court calendars so nobody knows when or whether he intends sitting again.” In response, Carmody CJ sought to prove he had a busy schedule by publishing his calendar of engagements.

This revealed he held a private meeting with child protection campaigner Hetty Johnston in April. At the time, he was one of three judges considering an appeal by Brett Cowan over his sentence for the rape and murder of 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe. In the wake of Cowan’s conviction, Johnston spoke to the media arguing that he “should not be released”: “These offenders are released from our courts on a daily basis and it must stop.” Her organisation, Bravehearts, formed a partnership with the Daniel Morcombe Foundation.

When McMurdo P discovered the meeting, she became concerned about the possible perception of bias, and asked the Chief Justice to disclose the meeting to the parties. An exchange of letters between the court and the lawyers followed, and ultimately Cowan’s legal team argued that due to the perception of possible bias, Carmody CJ should withdraw from the appeal bench. He told them they would need to be “armed to the teeth” to remove him, so they argued he should not make that decision himself as he appeared to have prejudged the matter.

At that point, Carmody CJ called a mention hearing and announced that while the application was “unmeritorious … it is in the best interests of this Court and overall public confidence in the administration of justice that I withdraw instead of prolonging this bizarre sideshow”.

He also released further correspondence that showed the depth of disagreement within the Court. McMurdo P said she was “deeply concerned” about the meeting with Johnston; Carmody CJ said his colleague’s investigation of the matter was an “exceptional interference with the ordinary judicial process”. Ultimately McMurdo P wrote to the Court registry: “I regret to inform you that following an extraordinary memorandum yesterday from the Chief Justice in relation to R v Cowan, I cannot sit with him again on any court. Please ensure in future that I am not listed to sit with the Chief Justice.”

The Court now needs to decide whether the remaining two appeal judges can deliver their decision, or if the appeal needs to be heard fresh by a new bench. The family of Daniel Morcombe are understandably upset by the delay and uncertainty; however, given the concerns about perceptions of bias were shared by lawyers and the President of the Court of Appeal, it is important that they be carefully addressed: “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.”

Victoria and Queensland debate statutory bills of rights

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.”

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”.)