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Opening of the 13th Commonwealth Law Conference and 33rd Australian Legal Convention, Melbourne: transcript of address.

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14 April 2003




Thank you very much Mr Woods, to Mr Heinrich, Attorneys General, Chief Justices, Your Honours, very distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

And amongst the distinguished guests, can I particularly welcome Cherie Booth QC from the United Kingdom, a very distinguished member of the British legal profession. And can I also take this opportunity very quickly and with some feeling to ask Cherie to convey to her husband, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the profound respect and admiration that many Australians feel for the strength and courage of his leadership over recent weeks.

Ladies and gentlemen, the MC has already recalled that in 1965, the last time this conference was held in Australia, it was opened by my very distinguished predecessor Sir Robert Menzies. The world was a very different place in 1965 than what it is now, and when one makes statements like that, audiences often expect the utterer of the words to then go on and describe how things have deteriorated since. I think in the area of the governance of the Commonwealth and the rule of law, it’s fair to say that things have advanced greatly since 1965. The rule of law is more widely respected in Commonwealth countries now I believe than it was then.

We have seen perhaps over that period of time the most remarkable event of all, and that is the return to the Councils of the Commonwealth of a multi-racial democracy in South Africa. We have seen the adoption of principles, amongst others the Harare principle which have enshrined as a condition of continuing Commonwealth participation and membership, an observance of the basic principles of the rule of law. And the very reasons this conference takes place here is because of the unwillingness of the members of the legal profession to accept that while the current state of affairs obtains in Zimbabwe, that such a conference could be held there. And as Chairman in office until December of this year of the Commonwealth, I can only but lament the continuing violation of basic human rights, continued suspension in many respects of the rule of law in Zimbabwe, by a Government that

holds office as a consequence of a rorted election, so found by an inquiry representing all sections of the Commonwealth.

As we gather here today, we naturally should reflect upon the heritage of the rule of law, so important to Australia. I welcome you here to the beautiful city of Melbourne, often voted as one of the most livable cities in the world. To those who have not come to Melbourne before, you will enjoy the experience. You will encounter in my view the most fiercely loyal, best instructed and most disciplined sporting audiences to be found anywhere in the world. In fact, if my research serves me correctly, and I always pay very careful attention to cricket research, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, with an attendance of over 90,000 for the fifth Test of the series against the West Indies in 1960/61 still boasts the very largest attendance at a Test Cricket match anywhere in the world. And of course its love of Australian Rules football is famous.

But as we gather here in Melbourne, we reflect upon the enormous debt that we owe to the fountainhead of the rule of law as we understand it, and that is the Common Law of England. We reflect upon the great bond that the law represents for the nations of the Commonwealth and we reflect upon the values that we hold in common as a result of that.

It is impossible to address an audience anywhere at the present time without mentioning the dramatic and momentous events in Iraq. And as the last vestiges of the hated regime of Saddam Hussein comes to an end, our thoughts naturally turn to the rebuilding of that country. The course that country takes belongs to decisions of the people of Iraq. It is not the desire of the Australian Government, and I know it is not the desire of the Government of the United States or the Government of the United Kingdom, to impose a form of Government on Iraq unacceptable to the Iraqi people, whatever the critics may say to the contrary. And so it will rest with the Iraqi people over time to develop their system of governance.

I observed at the weekend one leading foreign affairs commentator in The Australian newspaper speculating that perhaps Iraq could borrow from some of the Australian experience and look at the development of a Federal system of Government. The Commonwealth is composed of nations which are unitary in set up and also many very successful and very large federations, of which Australia is one. And perhaps there is some merit in that proposal, as the people of Iraq think about their future. When you reflect upon the strong Kurdish component in the north, the Shi’ite preponderance in the south, and the Sunni preponderance in the middle, perhaps there is some merit in a federal experiment in Iraq. I mention that with some trepidation, lest I be accused of endeavouring to impose some alien Australian solution on another country. But I mention it nonetheless because I think the experience of many countries in different parts of the world has been when you have strong ethnic and regional differences it is only a federal system of government that perhaps might provide the means of holding the nation together.

We all have a particular responsibility for the future of that country. There are many millions of people around the world who rejoice in the departure of such a hated regime and Australia let me say will play her part and a very full part in the reconstruction of that nation and the emergence of an open and free Iraq to take its place amongst the councils of the nation.

Your conference will examine every gamut of the operation of the law. It will examine the changes that have occurred in the legal profession all around the Commonwealth and not least in Australia over past years. And there will be much debate ladies and gentlemen on the role of constitutions, the balance between the codification of law and the common law, and the extent to which the enshrining of fundamental rights in bills of rights is appropriate in our



contemporary society. Without in anyway wishing to prejudice any of that debate let me say that after some 29 years of experience in public life in Australia one reaches some, albeit tentative conclusions and one of those is that for me my experience has been that the three great pillars of a democratic society, the three situations that prevail against all assaults on political freedom are the maintenance with all its flaws and it has many and is subject to so much criticism of a vigorous, robust, party political system typified by open free elections, and a parliamentary system that expresses the character of the people. The maintenance through all of this of a legal system exemplified by an incorruptible judiciary and of the many things of which our nation and I believe most of the nations of the Commonwealth can be immensely proud is that we have observed down through the decades the practice of an incorruptible judiciary. And the contribution made by that and the respect garnered as a consequence of that has worked very much to the credit of our nation. And finally and very importantly, and sometimes for we in the practice of politics frustratingly the existence of an open, robust, free and usually highly critical media. Those three great things underpin the Australian democratic experience and the Australian democratic practice as I have known it.

Can I in declaring this conference open express my great personal respect for the role of law in our society, or the rule of law. The profession has changed enormously over 38 years that have passed since this gathering last took place in Australia. Not least of course has been the very welcome feminisation of the profession. I’ve often reflected that I commenced my first year at the Sydney University Law School in 1957 there were but a handful of women in a year of some 160 men. Thirty-Five years later when my daughter entered her first year, the very same law school of the very same university, 52% of that first year was women. That is but one of the many changes which have occurred.

I wish you well, I thank you for honouring Australia in coming here. You will be made very welcome. It’s a wonderful, open, generous society that will make you feel very much at home and I hope you have wonderful conference and I declare it officially open. Thank you.