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Election '96: discussion on the gaoling of Albert Langer

ELLEN FANNING: Back to the case of the gaoled Melbourne activist who Amnesty International is calling a prisoner of conscience. Albert Langer has been gaoled for defying a court order to stop urging people to avoid giving their preferences to the two major political parties by putting the Liberal and Labor candidates equal last on their ballot papers. As we've already heard on P.M. tonight, John Howard said today that the present law is foolish and should be changed.

Well, Peter Jepperson in Melbourne spoke to South Australian Liberal Senator, Nick Minchin, who says Coalition members are on record as criticising the controversial section of the electoral law during a parliamentary committee review.

NICK MINCHIN: At the time of our inquiry, Albert Langer was bringing a case in the High Court against the constitutionality of this section, so it was a matter of public discussion. The Coalition members of that inquiry concluded that section 329A of the Electoral Act should be repealed, and our basic objection to the section is very much on the ground of civil liberties.

PETER JEPPERSON: Now, when you say 'repealed', what do you mean?

NICK MINCHIN: It should be abolished.

PETER JEPPERSON: Abolished completely.

NICK MINCHIN: Right out of the Electoral Act.

PETER JEPPERSON: So it would be legal for Albert Langer to do what he's now in gaol for-is that right?

NICK MINCHIN: That was the conclusion of the Coalition members of that committee, yes, that the section should be repealed and that what Albert Langer has been doing should therefore be legal.

PETER JEPPERSON: So what's your reaction to Albert Langer being put in gaol?

NICK MINCHIN: Well, my personal reaction was one of horror that anyone could end up in gaol for exercising free speech and for advocating something which is perfectly legal. I understand that he is, in fact, in gaol for contempt of court which is a separate matter, of course, but there should not be a section of the Electoral Act of this kind which has resulted in someone going to gaol.

PETER JEPPERSON: And becoming Australia's first prisoner of conscience.

NICK MINCHIN: Well, exactly. I just think, you know, in a democratic country like this, you should be able to advocate something which is lawful. It's an absolute nonsense.

PETER JEPPERSON: So what are you and your fellow Coalition members going to do about this? I mean, somebody is in gaol over this, albeit via the mechanisms of the law, and they have become Australia's first prisoner of conscience. What are you going to do about it?

NICK MINCHIN: Well, I'm very sorry that the Labor members of this committee, who were the majority, did not join us in advocating the repeal of this section. They continued to stand by this section which was, I think, very disappointing. In government, assuming we win the election on Saturday, I, as a member of that committee, will certainly be encouraging the Coalition government to move as soon as possible to repeal this section.

PETER JEPPERSON: If you are able to have this section of the Act repealed, as you say, very early in the piece if the Coalition wins the election, surely that would enhance legal moves to try and free Albert Langer, wouldn't it?

NICK MINCHIN: I really don't want to go into speculation about the consequences of such a repeal. Certainly, I would hope that never again will anyone in Australia go to gaol for exercising a legitimate and democratic right to free speech. All this man has done is advocate something which is, in fact, quite lawful under the Electoral Act.

PETER JEPPERSON: I suppose the irony that I'm pointing to is that Albert Langer could be freed by the actions of an incoming Coalition government.

NICK MINCHIN: Well, I would certainly hope that he is freed as soon as possible and that no one ever goes to gaol again for exercising the right to free speech, and I hope that is one of the first things a Coalition government can do.

ELLEN FANNING: South Australian Liberal Senator, Nick Minchin , with Peter Jepperson.