A responsibility to speak out

November 17, 1993

Lisa Macdonald

Last December, Armidale ALP branch president Tony Ramsay voiced the views of many rank-and-file ALP members when he addressed a meeting of Citizens Concerned 4 Democracy about the "insidious" slide to repressive governance in Australia.

Ramsay described the slide as undermining four pillars of democratic government: an independent broadcasting authority "that can openly report, scrutinise and, importantly, criticise government"; the higher education sector with its "responsibility to provide robust critical analysis"; a strong, democratic and independent trade union movement, which "ensures that certain social and economic justice criteria are met by government"; and "parliamentary democracy and the rule of law". The fourth pillar, said Ramsay, refers to "notions that include freedom of association; freedom of political speech and expression that includes challenging the government of the day; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention".

Ramsay believes that "Australia is, undeniably, a greater target for terrorism" due to the Howard government policies. Nonetheless, he said, the anti-terrorism legislation "passed in both the federal and state parliaments, aided shamefully by the federal Labor opposition and state Labor governments respectively, does not, in any way, either make us safer from a terrorist attack, or enhance or strengthen democratic governance and the rule of law." In fact, he added, these laws "usurp every cherished liberty that has been fought for, and maintained for centuries".

"In a nut shell, the legislation is abhorrent as it abolishes habeas corpus, the protection for the individual against arbitrary detention by the state; abolishes the requirement that guilt be established beyond reasonable doubt; abolishes the presumption of innocence; abolishes the right of an accused person to a fair trial; and abolishes rules of evidence which are fair to all parties", Ramsay said.

The legislation is also abhorrent, he added, because it "violates the separation of powers, as people can be imprisoned on the basis of a decision by the executive branch of government rather than the judiciary".

Given this, Ramsay asked his audience to "spare a thought for Doc Evatt, who must be doing cartwheels in response to the draconian laws that the ALP leadership has recently endorsed. "It was Doc Evatt who nigh single handedly fought in 1951, first as chief counsel representing the Waterside Workers Federation in the High Court against the banning of the Communist Party; then, as leader of the ALP opposition, against the Communist Party dissolution referendum, which had all the hall-marks of governmental tyranny to which we are now subjected."

Ramsay quoted from an article in the March 11, 1951, edition of the Sun newspaper commenting on the High Court decision to declare the Menzies government's anti-communist legislation invalid: "For Evatt, the High Court's judgment on the Communist Party Dissolution Act is a great political and legal triumph. Evatt took the brief [not because he was an advocate of Communist Party policy but] because the anti-communist legislation would make totalitarian government possible and violate fundamental principles of British justice. If the executive government could do this to communists, all minority groups would be in danger."

Ramsay's message was unequivocal: "I say to the senior parliamentarians in my party who voted for this legislation, shame on you. Shame on you for instilling fear and terror into the Australian community.

"Shame on you for taking Australia down a path that will, ultimately, if these laws are not repealed, ensure that innocent people, including political activists acting democratically, are interned without trial for their views. And shame on you that our children will not grow up in a society that is free to criticise fully and hold governments of all political persuasions accountable."

Ramsay noted: "Some people have suggested, to use Sir Humphrey Appleby's phraseology, that the Armidale branch is making a very 'brave' or 'courageous' decision in standing up to the ALP leadership in relation to these laws. On that point, I want to say that the Armidale branch has in the past and will in the future, continue to fight for decent and democratic outcomes for all Australians. While the branch and the wider party will continue to keep its differences largely 'in-house', we believe we have a responsibility to speak publicly when the party gets it so terribly wrong."

"This issue and fight has just begun", Ramsay said, "and I am proud to be part of a grassroots movement that seeks democracy and the rule of law as the starting point in civil society. On behalf of the Armidale ALP, we look forward to working with the wider community to ensure that these repressive laws are repealed."

From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
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