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Thursday, 13 September 1973
Page: 980


Mr BRYANT (Wills) (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs) - I am in complete agreement with my colleague from Isaacs (Mr Hamer). Capital punishment can surely have no place in a civilised society. He placed his case before this House in a most emphatic and persuasive way. However, I speak on this occasion not because I think I can persuade any more people here but because there has been a long campaign in this House and in every Parliament in Australia to have capital punishment abolished. For myself, I have taken a part> in these campaigns- perhaps by question, perhaps by reference, perhaps by persuasion. It is significant that the Australian Labor Party abolished it as far back as 1919. So I suppose that the time for rhetoric has passed, because there is in fact de facto abolition of capital punishment in Australia now.

This has been achieved because of great social pressures that have been created by parliamentary demands and by the simple facts of the case. It is odd that we should still have to argue so long in the parliaments of Australia to remove the last vestiges of it from the statute books. The preceding speaker mentioned the situation of Australian military crimes and the fact that in the First World War against all the arguments of all the best soldiers on the other side of the world we were able to put armies in the field and maintain them there without the machineguns behind them to keep them steady in the face of fire. That is probably as good an argument about this whole situation as one could produce.

Of course all sorts of arguments in favour of the death penalty are put forward by people. But I believe that in fact what lies behind us all when we support capital punishment is the simple, terrible human emotion, understandable as it may be, of vengeance. But vengeance has no place in civilised codes of conduct.

It may well be one of those emotions that we keep to ourselves. We even express it; but there is no place for it to be carried into action. 'Vengeance is mine', saith the Lord; it is not the job of this Parliament.

Then there is the question of punishment. My office is not far from Pentridge gaol. Every day that I pass it I ponder the fate of those people who are being punished inside. Like everyone else one feels the same emotions about crimes which are committed against persons and property. Somehow we have to stop people from committing the crimes. Somehow they must pay the debt that they have incurred. So we have invented prisons and flogging and execution to try to punish people for their sins against us, against each other and against others. I have grave doubts, the longer I live and the more I pass Pentridge, as to whether we really have the right to punish as such. It is a simple moral question how in which way we should administer punishment? Can we make it fit the crime? Does it achieve anything, and do we have the moral right to punish others?

Perhaps that is a rather way-out argument in view of the way in which society looks at these things now; but in the world today there is a great movement towards penal reform. I hope that this Parliament will be able to accelerate this trend and play its part in taking a totally different view of the way in which society should treat offenders against its laws. I believe that the present codes of punishment which we inflict upon people are irrelevant and often inhumane. I can think of nothing worse than locking up any person for a long period of time. There must be another way. As has been pointed out so often in these debates, there must also be some way to prevent crimes of violence that result in the death of a person other than by hanging or using any other form of capital punishment.

Then there is the deterrent argument, which has been canvassed at great length. There is no need for me to bring out the facts and figures this afternoon; they are all recorded in Hansard. I want to deal with the modified approach which has been placed before us in the amendments namely, that there are some crimes for which people ought to be executed. The most vigorous advocacy in support of this point of view is usually related to punishment for treason. To me treason is the last crime for which we ought to punish a person. If a person is disloyal to the community in that he betrays his duties to the community, as people see them, there is something wrong with the values of the community and not with the person. But what right have I or the community as a whole to punish someone because he does not see eye to eye with us on great issues? All through history people with power have exercised it not to keep people patriotic but to keep them loyal to those in power. Even in our country, as tolerant and basically humane and compassionate as it is, in recent years there have been times when if capital punishment had been readily available in the way in which it is in some other countries people in this country would have been charged with treason and perhaps executed for it. However, it is one of the great strengths of this country that nobody has ever been effectively charged with the crime of treason. I personally do not believe there should be any such crime on the statute book. I hold the same values as anyone else in this House. I have the same deep attachment to our country, the community and its values. But I do not believe I have any right to force those values on any other person who does not measure up the way I think he ought to and make him pay the penalty with his life. Therefore I hope that the House will give no longer serious consideration to the retention of capital punishment for the crime of treason.

Then we come to prison offences. This subject is particularly appropriate. Five or six years ago Ronald Ryan escaped from Pentridge gaol, one Sunday afternoon, I think it was, and in the course of that escape he shot and killed a warder in the street about 50 or 60 yards from my office. It was a dreadful crime, but it was carried out in the heat of the moment. A long campaign was conducted in the public arena, in the courts and through the various channels by which people communicate with governments, to prevent him from being hanged; but he was hanged. The Victorian Government committed what I hope was the last act of such barbarity because a person, in this case Ronald Ryan, shot a prison warder. The man who escaped with Ryan during the course of their escape or a little later committed a much worse and more barbarous act. He shot a man in cold blood to prevent his recapture. However, that man was simply retained in prison. There is so much that is arbitrary, so much that is capricious, about the whole system of judgment in these matters that we cannot have modified use on capital punishment. We either have it or we do not. There is no place on the statue books for it, even in respect of crimes committed by people who are in prison. Fortunately, crimes of that type are rare. My own feelings in this matter have been, fortified by the proximity of my office to the Pentridge prison. It is only a few hundred yards away. Years ago in that prison for some months Tait was under sentence of death. Dozens of people have been under sentence of death since I was elected to the Parliament. There are always some. I think there are some now in the Australian Capital Territory.


Mr Reynolds - It is not necessary.


Mr BRYANT - That is right. The system keeps these people in gaol under sentence of death and eventually the Executive Council decides that it will not carry out the sentence in certain cases. In Tait's case it was a long campaign and finally the Government surrendered. It was a pretty sordid exercise; but, in spite of how vicious Tait's crime was, he was saved from that fate. In Ryans case there was even more vigorous public support for the abolition of the death penalty and for the death sentence not to be carried out in his case, but it failed. Ever since I have been bothered by the attitude adopted by the Victorian State Cabinet in that situation. 1 know many of the Cabinet members well. They are people of distinction and compassion. 1 disagree with them politically over most areas. Some of them I have known for half my lifetime. I just cannot understand how they were able to stand by that decision. I think it is one of our duties to remove from the statute book the necessity for Ministers as members of the Executive Council to make that sort of decision.

We are always concerned with the sanctity of human life. This community places great store upon human life. We have had debates on the question of abortion based on that very issue. I felt that one of the most serious criticisms of the Vietnam participation was the commitment of conscripts to the battlefield with their lives to forfeit. We will not produce any belief in the sanctity of life by killing people. Nearly all the crimes of recent times for which people have been under sentence of death have been committed on the spur of the moment. Nevertheless, there are some dreadful people about and no one knows what to do with them. There are a number in every major prison in Australia. But we will not solve this problem by the continuance of this barbarism. The standards of behaviour in the community, as established by governments and in public life, are the ones which will produce an attitude towards other people's rights and lives. Of course, there is always the argument that perhaps the innocent are punished. Occasionally this is so. Occasionally it is discovered years afterwards that the person who was punished was innocent. There is a dreadful record, as revealed in the book placed before us by my colleague, the Minister for the Capital Territory (Mr Enderby). It contains a list of people executed in Britain over a period of five or six years from 1949 onwards. Many of them were young, most of them were men and most of them were executed for crimes of passion. In some cases there seemed to be plenty of evidence that at the time the crime was committed they were insane. Of course, on occasions there is evidence which casts grave doubt on whether people did commit the crimes for which they were punished. I hope that on this occasion - I am pretty certain that it will happen - the Australian Parliament will set the seal on the standards of this community and by the passage of this Bill repeal the death penalty and therefore place Australia generally up with most other civilised nations and with several of the Australian States. I reject the amendments. I do not believe that there is any validity in the arguments put forward in support of them. Capital punishment is one of the last relics of barbarity on our statute book. Today is a very important point in parliamentary history because we will be setting standards for one or two of the States which have on their statute books provision for capital punishment which has been retained by the archaic procedures of legislative councils.







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