NSW Civil Liberties Council celebrates 60 years of defending progressive activists

September 26, 2023
From left: Josh Pallas, Meredith Burgmann, Craig Foster, Lydia Shelly. Photo: Liam Burrows

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties (CCL) celebrated its 60th birthday on September 20.  More than 250 people attended including NSW Supreme Court judges, solicitors and barristers in the community sector and private firms, journalists and activists. Sixty Years Strong, a documentary covering campaign highlights, was also launched.

The event was MCed by Meredith Burgmann, a former Labor president of the New South Wales Legislative Council and co-author of Green Bans, Red Union: Environmental Activism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation. Burgmann was arrested 21 times over the 1970s and 1980s.

Keynote speaker Craig Foster, a former Socceroos captain, former SBS journalist and author of Fighting for Hakeem, criticised Australia’s growing inequality.

“I volunteer at the wonderful food hub, the Addison Road Community Centre, and I see while we are an extremely wealthy nation, poverty is growing.

“How is it that given we are so rich, that we have such levels of homelessness and housing stress? Housing is a human right, and the government needs to deliver on it.”

Foster quoted United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on the climate emergency, noting “humanity has opened the gates to hell”.

“We cannot open any more coal and gas projects if we want to save our planet,” Foster said. “We need a just transition and we need it now. Our governments are not listening to us, so we need mass civil disobedience to stop them. Who will take part in this?”

Foster said environmentalists, such as Violet Coco who was sent to jail for taking a stand, have to be defended.

Addressing women’s sport, he said developments in Spain showed there is a need for both “system change” and “cultural change to win equality”.

“We can deliver equal pay, easily. The government needs to pool the money they’ve allocated to men and women’s sport, then divide it equally between all the players.”

Eden Gillespie won the 2023 Excellence in Civil Liberties Journalism Awards Young Journalist section. Gillespie broke the news that Brisbane Watchhouse officers were consistently racist and sexist which forced the Queensland government to investigate. Gillespie paid tribute to the bravery of officer Steven Marshall and said whistleblowers, including journalists, need protection and have the right to protect their sources.

Journalists Christopher Knaus and Nino Bucci won the 2023 Open Category award. Their story detailed officials from the Department of Home Affairs demanding independent researchers alter a report critical of counterterrorism powers.

The powers allow individuals to be imprisoned for a crime they had not committed. Knaus and Bucci broke this story with a series of articles on the government's attempts to cover this report up.

A Kakfa Award for the “most egregious public statements or acts offensive to civil liberties and human rights” was awarded to Opposition Leader Peter Dutton for his “If you don’t know, vote no!” commentary on the Voice to Parliament.

Lydia Shelly, CCL Vice-President, gave a moving tribute to David Bernie, a life-long CCL activist and barrister who recently passed away.

Josh Pallas, outgoing CCL president, said the short documentaries “record our proud history of defending protesters and civil liberties” including interviews by himself, Wendy Bacon, Stephen Blanks and Cameron Murphy “explain the rich history of CCL lawyers taking part in and defending protesters in the LGBTIQ movements, in the environment, feminist, anti-racist and green ban campaigns”.

“The CCL are here to help anyone who challenges the rich and powerful, their bigotry and prejudice and their pollution of our planet. We know protest action is going to be important in the next political period and we stand with protesters taking action.” 

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