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Monday, 22 February 2010
Page: 1351

Ms REA (5:50 PM) —I too rise to support the bill before us, the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Torture Prohibition and Death Penalty Abolition) Bill 2009. In doing so, I wish to commend the Attorney-General for bringing this piece of legislation forward—and I would have said that regardless of whether he was actually present in the chamber, but I am pleased that he is here. I commend the Attorney-General for introducing this bill, because I think it reflects that a democracy is an organic thing, an ever-changing, living, breathing thing, that adapts and changes according to different stages of social progression—and, indeed, we hope that it does so in a way that will always make society better. I certainly believe that this legislation will do so. I am also very pleased to support this bill, because often in this place there is a lot of fanfare, attention and publicity associated with a number of bills that go through this House but often some of the most significant pieces of legislation are the ones that get very little airplay at all—and I would say that this bill is a perfect example of that.

As a relatively new member of this parliament, it is interesting that I would be standing here in the year 2010 speaking on a piece of legislation which outlaws the death penalty and torture. I believe this legislation is not just a reflection of how our democracy and our legislative processes work—in that we are constantly looking at ways in which we can reinforce the significant values that underlie our democratic society—but also a very interesting reflection on the federal nature of our society and of our governance system.

We have various state and territory laws that have banned torture and outlawed the death penalty. Australia can hold its head high amongst most Western countries in terms of its commitment to opposing torture and the death penalty. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the international community has recognised the need for Australia to amend the Commonwealth Criminal Code and the Death Penalty Abolition Act to reflect our international obligations and to ensure that, through Commonwealth legislation, torture and death penalty laws can never again be introduced by state or territory parliaments. It is quite a significant piece of legislation for Australia. It clearly shows that the government are very committed to honouring Australia’s international obligations, particularly our obligations around the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Second Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In reflecting on the interesting governance system that we have in this country, articles 4 and 5 of the convention against torture refer specifically to the need for nations to not rely simply upon state and territory law but to introduce laws into their national parliaments which will not allow these particular actions to resurface. Indeed, article 4 says:

1.   Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law. The same shall apply to an attempt to commit torture and to an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture. 2. Each State Party shall make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.

Article 5 says:

1.   Each State Party shall take such measures as may be necessary to establish its jurisdiction over the offences referred to in article 4 in the following cases:

(a)     When the offences are committed in any territory under its jurisdiction or on board a ship or aircraft registered in that State;

(b)    When the alleged offender is a national of that State;

(c)     When the victim was a national of that State if that State considers it appropriate.

2.   Each State Party shall likewise take such measures as may be necessary to establish its jurisdiction over such offences in cases where the alleged offender is present in any territory under its jurisdiction and it does not extradite him pursuant to article 8 to any of the States mentioned in Paragraph 1 of this article.

3.   This Convention does not exclude any criminal jurisdiction exercised in accordance with internal law.

It is important that this law has a practical implication. I want to assure the previous speaker that, because of the nature of our federal system and because of the ability of Commonwealth law to override state and territory laws, there is a very clear and practical reason why the government have introduced this legislation—that is, to ensure that we do not see torture or the death penalty ever reintroduced in this country.

Many speakers before me have talked at length about our opposition to torture and the death penalty. As a government and as a nation, we have a very proud record both domestically and internationally of being great advocates for human rights and great supporters of the United Nations and of any international approach which attempts to protect and improve the human rights of citizens across the globe. We have a proud record of making clear our opposition to the death penalty and to torture. But we also have to be very mindful that this can sometimes be difficult. We all know that there are many people within our own communities and across the globe who have varying views about the level of punishment that should be administered to someone who commits a heinous crime or act against somebody else. We all know that we live every day with the very real threat of terrorism. We also know that we live in a society where unfortunately there are individuals who can perform the most horrendous acts on people who are perhaps more vulnerable than them. All these things can sometimes bring out that part of our nature which is tempted to react, to seek revenge and to seek punishment. There are certainly cases and, I think, appropriate situations where punishment must be administered.

If we are to uphold the true principles of a free and democratic society—where parliaments are elected, where people have the right to vote, where every individual can exercise certain freedoms and have certain rights—and say we are a civilised and progressive community, we have to say that there are no circumstances in which the death penalty or torture is acceptable. We have to say that there is no point where you can draw a line. If you do not believe that the state or an individual has a right to take someone else’s life, particularly in the form of revenge or punishment, then there are no circumstances in which it is appropriate. You have to clearly say, ‘It should be outlawed in all circumstances.’ I personally support that, and that is why I am very pleased to be speaking on this legislation.

As I have already said, this legislation is not just about dealing with this issue at a domestic level; it is clearly about the government and the nation honouring our obligations under international conventions and covenants to which we are a party. It is also about putting our money where our mouth is. It is about saying that we as participants in the global community are strongly opposed to both torture and the death penalty. If we are to be strong advocates in whatever international forum that we participate in and if we are to be strong advocates with both our friends and those who we may not have such a great relationship with—to argue vehemently that they must never abuse human rights in the most horrendous way through torture and the death penalty—then we have to put our money where our mouth is.

As a Commonwealth parliament we have to clearly say that we do not support this under any circumstances and that we will use whatever legislative means we have to ensure that these particular actions will never see the light of day again in Australia. It is about being a good global citizen, it is about being an active player on the global stage and it is about clearly sending the message to all countries who continue to allow the death penalty: that Australia will not accept it and we will do whatever we can to oppose it and fight against it.

As the Chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I think it is very important for me to be putting my comments on the record in this case. I acknowledge the work of that subcommittee and the work of the many non-government organisations and representatives of civil society who are working tirelessly in the area of protecting and defending human rights, not just on the global stage but here in our country. One civil society always reminds us that we must be ever-vigilant and never complacent.

I think that is reflected interestingly in the recent consultations that were initiated by the Attorney-General and conducted around the issue of human rights here within our own nation and the freedoms that many of our citizens take for granted. When the panel of eminent persons went out to consult with the community, they received over 40,000 submissions on the issue of human rights in Australia. I think that is a reflection that within the Australian community there is still a very strong interest in how we as a democratic society can continue to protect, defend and improve our domestic approach to human rights. It also clearly showed support for the government and for the parliament to put human rights as a key issue, not just domestically but internationally. Today, in my capacity as Chair, I had the opportunity to attend the consultations that were run by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with civil society and the many NGOs that attended.

In conclusion, I once again put on the record my support and admiration for the people who work in those organisations. They are fighting for individual people who are in dire circumstances and for particular groups in our society who are still vulnerable and open to exploitation and abuse. What they are doing through their tireless work is constantly maintaining vigilance and ensuring against the complacency which can sometimes creep in when we are focused on many other things as a parliament and as a community. The protection, defence and the continual desire to improve our human rights is the fundamental value that underpins our work in this parliament, our democratic society and our prosperity as individuals. I commend this bill to the House.