Governor Arthur Phillip in 1786 in setting out his plans for the colony of NSW to be a free land called out against slavery 21 years ahead of Wilberforce in the UK in 1807, writes Marian Edmunds. However, in 2009 Australia is already 10 years behind the UK in creating an Australian Human Rights Act. A period of national consultation on human rights has just been conducted in Australia with the findings to go to the government by September 30.
At the Bangalow A&I Hall, and in a marquee under blue skies on a dusty Byron Bay field with crows within cooee, Geoffrey Robertson, Q.C reiterated the case for an Australian bill of rights made forcefully in his latest book Statute of Liberty.
In speeches delivered at the opening night and opening day sessions, Robertson, of Hypotheticals fame and who runs the UK’s biggest human rights practice, Doughty Street Chambers, set out his case for a bill of rights. He also called on Australian writers including Peter Singer, Anne Summers, David Williamson and Tom Keneally to take up the challenge and to hone and improve upon his preamble for a Bill of Rights.
Robertson mentioned his own connection to Byron Bay, although this was his first visit. His uncle Lance Robertson managed the Byron branch of the Commonwealth Bank, and was unhappy about a law which saw pubs closed at 6.p.m just at the time when fisherman arrived home with their catch and a raging thirst. He scoured the NSW statute to find some way around it and found a law that allowed a railway bar to remain open as long as there was a train at the station. He and the railway master conspired to ensure that remained the case.
Southern Cross University sponsored Geoffrey Robertson’s visit to the festival. In introducing him, Paul Clark, vice chancellor spoke of Robertson’s passion for writing,
and the authors that have played a big part in his life including John Mortimer and
his wife Australian Kathy Lette. His wife’s books have rather different titles and subject matters than those of Robertson. Her most recent was How To Kill Your Husband And Other Handy Household Tips, and now Lette is writing a novel that will be printed on waterproof paper so it may be read in the bath.
Robertson spoke of the unsung role of Dr Herbert Vere Evatt, Doc Evatt, the Australian foreign secretary who was influential in shaping what would later become the European Court of Human Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From early on Australia punched above its weight brokering deals between the then USSR and the US.
Meanwhile, Robertson has defended both ordinary and high profile people in rights cases. For a time after the fatwa against him was announced Salman Rushdie stayed in North London with Robertson and Lette. They even managed to get Rushdie to Australia for a vacation which went well until Rushdie, while driving to the South Coast collided with a truck, a sewage truck. The driver was duly arrested and questioned for some days about his connections to Iranian terrorism to which he replied, “I only drive the dunny truck.”
But more seriously, as it became clear that the fatwa was never really about Rushdie’s book, it is obvious only now that this was an early marker in a long line of events that would become cruelly apparent on a September morning in NYC in 2001.
The UK Human Rights Bill bought dignity to many places in the UK where it had been sadly lacking, Robertson citing cases where nursing home residents had been served meals while on the toilet. He said that a Human Rights Act would go some way to removing some of the dubious things that still take place in nursing homes and hospitals in NSW. It is these kind of matters Robertson has raised in his submission to the Human Rights consultation.
In the UK, from next year every 14-year-old will take a human rights subject, and in the trials already run in the UK, the course has been successful.
Robertson finished by setting out his own provisional preamble for a bill of rights, and by giving the somewhat ridiculous impression that his is a dashed off “wet-Sunday-afternoon-effort”, in which case it would be interesting to see an effort in full flight. It can be found in Chapter 8 of Statute of Libertyand challenges Australia’s great writers to improve upon it and readers to critique it. I would recommend reading the book to gain context that cannot be even touched upon in a modest blog post.
Geoffrey Robertson preamble, “for an act to declare rights and freedoms of the people and to make better provision for liberty in Australia” , Statute of Liberty, Vintage Books, 2009 reads like this:
Conscious of its democratic duty to uphold, protect and advance the hard-won liberties of the Australian people, united in one indissoluble Commonwealth;
Humble in acknowledging the first owners and occupiers of this unique continent whose ancestors have walked the path on this earth for many thousands of years before British settlement;
Sorrowful for the dispossession, discrimination and degradation they have endured and of the earth and result in the enough the respect our relationship with the land and resolved hereafter to respect their relationship with the land and to atone for past wrongs by future equity;
Proud nonetheless of our progress from penal colony to a free nation of boundless opportunity, unrestricted by the divisions of class or caste, or private or private wealth, and an example to the world of the ever-present possibility of reformation of the human spirit;
Dedicated to democracy as defined in the federal constitution, under which all who have a stake in the making will have a say in its governance;
Grateful for the British legacy of liberty, first granted in this country by Governor Arthur Phillip, for Magna Carta’s great promise that to no one will justice be denied or delayed for the jury trial, and the importance of free speech for a common law which presumes innocence and abominates torture and for the way these fundamental freedoms have been nurtured and embellished by generations of Australians;
Cognisant of the achievements of our country in providing better ways of working through labour rights and collective bargaining and the basic wage;
Mindful that rights entail responsibilities, and that Australia expects its people to show tolerance, respect and mutual consideration for their fellows, to abjure violence and embrace peaceful change, and willingly to share community burdens for the common good of the Commonwealth;
Determined that all shall have a stake in the prosperity of this nation and those most in need shall have a moral and legal claim on out compassion;
Inspired by the Anzac tradition of preparedness to fight for the freedom, internationally and and in our region, against any movement that threatens to extinguish the rights of humankind;
Respectful of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the drafting of which the Australia had the privilege to participate, and of all the treaties to be ratified to uphold the dignity of individuals in this nation and throughout the world;
Resolved that the liberties our forebears struggled and sacrificed to achieve shall hereafter inure to the benefit of all who live in this land, Hereby declares that in order to advance the fair Australia, the liberties set forth in this charter shall be protected in the manner hereafter provided.
From Statute of Liberty, by Geoffrey Robertson, published by Vintage Books, 2009
This post updated August 14, 2009