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Thursday, 13 September 1973
Page: 982


Mr DRURY (Ryan) - This Bill seeks to abolish the death penalty for any offence and to substitute imprisonment for life. The proposal is all or nothing. It has been criticised by some because there is no provision to cover extreme cases, such as treason or murder following the hijacking of an aircraft. To that list some would add the murder of prison warders or policemen, murders following a threat coupled with a demand for money, second murders by the same criminal and the murder of a diplomatic or consular official. An eminent Sydney doctor, Dr William McBride who alerted the world to the dangers of thalidomide to unborn children, has recommended capital punishment for drug smuggling. As I see it, there is no completely clear out case either for or against the retention of the death penalty, even for the worst crimes.

The authority of the Bible has been quoted for years with sincerity and conviction by both abolitionists and retentionists. Since the earliest times, men have struggled with the question of capital punishment. The custom in the Middle East was to execute criminals by stoning, hanging, crucifixion or impalement on a stake. In ancient Babylon, persons condemned to death were thrown into a pit to be torn and devoured by hungry lions, or cast into a fiery furnace. Daniel is one of the very few recorded persons against whom one of these dread penalties failed to operate. In ancient Rome Christians were thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. Death by hanging was the usual method adopted in Egypt and in a number of other countries.

In the Middle Ages religious dissenters were frequently burnt at the stake, torn asunder on the rack or killed by the embrace of what was euphemistically called the 'Iron Maiden'. A doomed prisoner was sometimes tied to 4 horses which were then driven apart, tearing the prisoner's body from limb to limb. Prior to 1835 the penalty for treason in England was hanging, followed by decapitation, disembowelling and quartering. In 1780 about 350 crimes in England were punishable by death - many of them were trivial offences as my colleague and friend the honourable member for Isaacs (Mr Hamer) has pointed out. As the honourable member said, even quite young children were sometimes hanged. In France the guillotine was first used in 1789, in the first year of the French Revolution, and continued in use for 180 years, being abolished only in 1969. In the early history of the United States of America capital punishment was as often as not imposed by a lynching mob; the electric chair came into use in 1890, and in 1937 the gas chamber was introduced. No-one can deny that most of these methods are barbarous and cruel and belong essentially to the past. I have cited them to show how attitudes have changed through the centuries. Today, many nations have eliminated the death penalty, partly because authorities maintain that capital punishment does not deter crime and partly because many believe that it is cruel and inhuman.

One of the strongest arguments used by the abolitionists is that an innocent person may be put to death. The crucifixion of Christ is, of course, the most outstanding case of rank injustice in the whole annals of history. Death is so very final and there can surely be no greater wrong than to put to death, by any means whatsoever, an innocent person. There is a very real dilemma in this whole question, in a moral sense, in a religious sense and in a social sense. It is unhappily true that we live in a world of growing lawlessness and violence. It is true also that a high percentage of serious crime is unsolved. Some countries where the death penalty has been abolished are considering reviving it in the belief that it is the most compelling deterrent to the worst kinds of crime. Some people argue that the ultimate penalty should be reserved for the ultimate in crime. Some people suggest that degrees of murder should be more clearly established. Others warn that notorious killers may escape from prison and kill again. Of course, this has happened.

The abolitionists, including Lord Gardiner, an eminent English jurist, maintain that there is no country where the murder rate has increased because capital punishment has been abolished. When delivering the Southey Memorial Lecture at the University of Mel bourne Faculty of Law last April Lord Gardiner referred to various European countries that have abolished the death penalty and he claimed that they were right in so doing. Dealing with the possible deterrent effect which has already been referred to at length in this debate, Lord Gardiner said:

The cry for an increase in deterrence is as old as mankind; but it has never worked - not even in the days when we had capital punishment for more than 200 different offences.

In fact, since the last war, there had been a steady increase in my country in the length of sentences.

He was referring to the position in England. He emphasised that an increasing crime rate required an increase in the strength of the police force, and with this I most heartily agree. Indeed, I believe that it is of prime importance if we are to place more emphasis on crime prevention, as I feel we should. In Brisbane recently the Queensland Minister responsible for the police force said Australians had a tendency to regard criminals as the underdogs and to have more sympathy for the criminal than for the police. If this is so, surely there is something basically wrong with our scale of values. Some of the old-fashioned revulsion against crime appears to have receded. I believe that not nearly enough thought and compassion are extended to the victims of crimes or to their relatives.

Perhaps .these attitudes are merely modern. Perhaps they are symptoms of a sick society or at least of a society that is uncertain of its standards and of just where it is going. But without doubt the general trend in the world today is away from, capital punishment. Some of the Australian States abolished it a long time ago and there is lack of uniformity in this country. In my own State of Queensland the death penalty was abolished more than 50 years ago, in 1922 to 'be precise. The last hanging there was in 19(13. The rate of serious crime is no higher in Queensland because of the abolition of capital punishment. In New. South Wales the death penalty was abolished in 1955, except for 2 rare crimes, treason and piracy with violence. Convicted murderers are now sentenced to life imprisonment, which appears to average only about 17 years. On this point I take issue most strongly with the State authorities concerned. In my view life imprisonment should mean just exactly that. To release a convicted murderer sentenced to imprisonment for life is, I believe, a wrong against society and makes a farce of the law. It invites further crimes, as the records show. It also minimises the all-important deterrent effect of a lawful sentence of life imprisonment.

As honourable members will recall, there was a case a little time ago of a man named Lawrence in South Australia who asked to be hanged rather than be doomed to imprisonment for life. I have read some of the debate that took place at Westminster in 1969 when the British Parliament voted for the abolition of the death penalty. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Ramsey, led 18 bishops who voted for the abolition. In the House of Lords debate the Archbishop said:

Abolition of capital punishment once and for all will help to create a more civilised society to search for the causes of crime and to continue experiments in .penal reform.

Dr Ramseysaid he was certain that the decision would be to the advantage and honour of the nation. In June last year the United States Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty, under most existing State and Federal laws, was unconstitutional.

It seems rather farcical to keep on the statute books in this country a penalty which is almost invariably commuted to life imprisonment. A mandatory death penalty increases rather than diminishes the chances of dangerous criminals going unpunished, as juries are more reluctant to convict. In effect the death penalty represents retribution rather than correction and there is always the risk of serious injustice. I am far from satisfied that capital punishment, by whatever means it is carried out, is a deterrent to the most serious types of crime, and although to my mind the position is by no means clear-cut, I come down on the side of those who say that we should support the Bill. I agree with those who maintain that certainty of apprehension and sentence is the most effective deterrent and provides the greatest protection for our Australian society and this certainty plus reformation of criminals is, in my view, what we should strive to achieve.







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