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Tuesday, 9 September 2003
Page: 14709

Senator WEBBER (8:39 PM) —I rise tonight to speak on the issue of the death penalty. I did so during the last sitting period and will do so again for as long as it takes for the Prime Minister to declare that the debate is over. Let us make no mistake. This is yet another example of the Prime Minister opening Pandora's box, claiming that he is opposed to it but letting the debate run its course propelled along by right wing commentators. And, of course, it is only raised because it can be linked to terrorism this time.

Let me put this in simple terms. If you do not support the death penalty, you do not support it. None of this conditional nonsense is acceptable. Principles gain strength when we commit to them, not when they are easy but when they are hard. The debate is opened by a Prime Minister demonstrating how reasonable he is on the subject but then leaves it up to his fellow travellers to keep the debate going. I suspect that the strategy is that at some point he will reintroduce it, link it to terrorism and claim that he is only reflecting the public will.

Senator McGauran —It's a state issue.

Senator WEBBER —Not necessarily. In fact, on one of the media outlets' web sites during August there was a survey asking whether you supported the death penalty for an act of barbarism. What is an act of barbarism? That is what is clever of course. It is not defined.

Geoffrey Barker in the AustralianFinancial Review of Monday, 18 August argues against the death penalty in an article called `Force the martyrs to live'. I am heartened to find that many of the arguments he advances are similar to those that I also put forward. In fact, over the last month, a number of commentators have written or spoken out against the death penalty and they point out that you cannot be a conditional opponent of the death penalty. Geoffrey Barker says:

State-sanctioned executions are either universally defensible or indefensible.

Mr Barker states that there are two reasons for opposing the death penalty for terrorists. Firstly, executions bring the state down to the level of the terrorist. Secondly, execution gives the terrorist what they want.

Proudly, Australia does not allow the death penalty. By any stretch of the imagination, that makes us a civilised society—not for us the bloodlust of revenge and retribution. We have grown as a nation and we accept that state sanctioned killings diminish all of us. The Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973 states in section 4:

A person is not liable to the punishment of death for any offence.

Even though the Commonwealth had the capacity to sentence a person to death for over 70 years, there was not a single person executed for Commonwealth crime in that time. The death penalty only existed under the Crimes Act 1914 for the offence of treason and in the Defence Act 1903 for various offences.

During the First World War, the Australian Army served under British command. The dominions of Canada and New Zealand allowed their personnel to serve under the jurisdiction of the British Army Act. The Australians allowed the British Army Act to apply as long as it did not contradict the Australian Defence Act 1903. This essential difference meant that during the war, although some 121 Australians were sentenced to death, none were executed. Most of these sentences were in relation to either sleeping at their post or unauthorised absence from duty. All the recommendations for death penalties were forwarded to the then Governor-General in Council. Approval was not given in a single case. During the same period, the British Army executed some 346 soldiers. Pressure was placed on the Australian government to change its legislation or to allow the British Army Act to take precedence.

The Australian government's position was reflected within the community at that time and is best expressed by C.E.W. Bean in the official history of the AIF. On page 871 he says:

... there was an invincible abhorrence of the seeming injustice of shooting a man who had volunteered to fight in a distant land in a quarrel not peculiarly Australian.

By any measure the principles being applied were consistent not selective. Even under pressure from the British government and, at times, their own military commanders, the Australian government would not budge.

This debate by proxy by the Prime Minister is one that Australia cannot have and should not have. The simple reason is that Australia is a party to the second optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Under that covenant we have an obligation not to make laws that have capital punishment as one of the sanctions. We have signed up as a country that will not introduce laws relating to capital punishment. Therefore as a country we are opposed to the death penalty—not a conditional opposition but a total opposition.

I also want to speak briefly about the case of the Nigerian woman Amina Lawal. Amina has been sentenced to death by a religious court in Nigeria for the offence of bearing a child outside marriage. Her execution, if it takes place, will be by stoning. I know that all Australians would reject such a punishment. We do so because it is hardly civilised or humane for such a penalty to be applied or carried out. However, if we argue that it is inappropriate in Amina's case then we must accept that we cannot argue that it is appropriate in other situations. That being the case, we should accept that to argue in favour of the death penalty means we have to accept it for all the Aminas of the world. That is clearly not what a civilised society like Australia should do.

I turn now to another example showing the idiocy of the death penalty. Last week in Florida they executed Paul Hill. Paul Hill believed so strongly in the sanctity of human life that he shot dead a doctor and the doctor's escort outside a women's clinic. Life meant so much to Paul Hill that he extinguished two lives to prove how right he was. And then the State of Florida, to prove that it too believed in the sanctity of life, executed Paul Hill. The stupidity, the irony and the farce of it all will no doubt be lost on people who are in favour of the death penalty. I want to finish by quoting from a 1987 Australian Institute of Criminology report on capital punishment. It says:

The concept of `an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth' is said to be applicable to capital punishment. Under this theory ... the person who murders, it is said, should be executed for the sake of justice alone. Against this moral argument is one which holds that the community itself has the power to determine what is just and fair punishment. ... it is possible to argue that there is something illogical in the State employing execution to demonstrate its high regard for the sanctity of human life.