Human rights

Why isn't the erosion of our democracy an election issue?

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Criminal lawyer and spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, Greg Barns, looks at the erosion of rights over the course of the past three years by the ALP and Coalition and argues this should be an election issue.

IT HAS had little or no coverage in this interminably long Federal election campaign, but the erosion of human rights – and therefore our democracy – in Australia should be an issue discussed as we head to the polls in a few days.

Over the course of the last three years, the Coalition parties supported generally by the ALP, have eroded the right to freedom of speech, undermined the right to privacy and increased the capacity of security agencies and the bureaucracy to operate without proper independent scrutiny. All of these measures have been legislated in the name of the so-called "War on Terror" or what is termed “border control”.

On their own, each of these measures has provoked disquiet, and even outrage, among those committed to human rights and the rule of law, but when examined cumulatively the assault on democracy since 2013 has been breathtaking.

It is critical that we ask ourselves this question before we cast a vote on July 2: What other draconian measures has the ALP and the Coalition got in mind to legislate over the next three years, and which of those parties and individuals running for Senate spots will support them?

It is worth recalling each of the anti-democratic measures that now sit on the statute books in this country courtesy of the majority of the politicians we elected in 2013. 

First, there are the amendments made to the Commonwealth Crimes Act in 2014, which allow ASIO to label an operation a “controlled operation”. This means ASIO agents can commit criminal offences and civil wrongs such as burglaries, assaults, kidnapping and frauds knowing they will not be prosecuted. Only murder, sexual assaults and serious assaults are out of bounds. 

These operations are secret, so that any person, including the media, who reveals anything about such an operation faces up to five or ten years imprisonment depending on whether they acted recklessly or intentionally. Only some Independents in the Senate – such as Nick Xenophon, David Leyonhjelm and John Madigan – voted with the Greens to oppose this law.

Similarly, being sheltered from scrutiny through the criminalisation of free speech are those who run the notorious immigration detention centre system. The Australian Border Force Act was passed last year with only the Greens opposing it. As we know this law makes it a criminal offence for any person working in immigration detention, with few exceptions, to reveal what happens in these awful places. 

Even doctors are not protected, as revelations about the Australian Federal Police spying on Peter Young, a prominent doctor who worked in the centres and who has publicly aired his disquiet over mistreatment of asylum seekers, shows. 

Then there was the extraordinary law that allows the Federal government to know whom it is each and everyone of us communicates with by phone, email, Facebook and any other electronic format over the previous 2 years. The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act was supported by the ALP but not by most of the Independents and Greens.

Stripping Australians as young as 14 of citizenship is now possible, courtesy of our politicians. And worse than that it is done by a minister, not through an independent and rigorous court process. The opposition to this Bill came from Independents and Greens, with even the so called left of the ALP too frightened to stand up for a fundamental tenet of the rule of law in a democracy — that only independent courts should be allowed to decide grave questions such as citizenship.

Then, of course, we had changes to the Migration Act that allow the minister to expel individuals who are not citizens but who have lived here with their families all their lives and the watering down of Australia’s obligations under international law to take in desperate refugees. 

It has been a grim three years for fundamental rights in Australia. The track record of the major parties is appalling. It surely matters that our democracy is being endangered with the relentless assault on fundamental rights. This is as important as health care, job creation or the NBN. 

It is important we understand what further anti-democratic measures the ALP and Coalition propose if they are elected on July 2. It is significant and a sad fact that neither proposes to increase human rights protection through a human rights law or constitutional entrenchment of such rights as is the case in other democracies. 

This election should not simply be about appealing to the self-interest of marginal seats voters. If we are apathetic about what has happened to human rights protections over the past three years then we cannot complain if the stripping of those rights courtesy of the Coalition and ALP continues after July 2.

Greg Barns is a barrister and writer, who has written extensively on human rights issues.You can follow Greg on Twitter @BarnsGreg.

Cartoon of Peter Dutton courtesy of John Graham. You can order other cartoons of John's from the IA store here

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