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Wednesday, 15 March 2000
Page: 12781


Senator SCHACHT (9:32 AM) —I rise to speak in this debate on the Human Rights (Mandatory Sentencing of Juvenile Offenders) Bill 1999 and to indicate my support to the already indicated support of the opposition for the bill. I am speaking on this debate partly prompted by the speech made by Senator Tambling the day before yesterday in this place. I happened to be the duty shadow minister for the opposition in the chamber while Senator Tambling made his speech, and I felt that there were so many offensive things about his speech that, at the very least, some of the issues he raised and the way he raised them should be responded to. But broader than that, this is a very important bill on a very important principle which I think senators on all sides should express their view on.

In 1991 I had the honour to be the founding chairperson of the Australian Parliamentary Human Rights Committee. I was invited to address the National Press Club on our first report, which was made public. I remember getting a question from a journalist, after I had spoken to the report, asking whether I believed the mandatory law passed in Western Australia at that time was in contravention of our international human rights obligations. I simply said yes—a very short answer but the correct answer. I have not changed my view about the law in Western Australia and I certainly believe the law in the Northern Territory is even more stark in the way it not only contravenes our international human rights obligations but also offends any notion of fairness in the way we should conduct our affairs in a First World democracy that has a long and proud tradition of democratic rights for individuals and the rule of law.

First of all, I do not accept the arguments put by Senator Tambling and other apologists for the Northern Territory government that we can ignore our international obligations. It is clear from the very succinctly written Senate report on this bill—and I congratulate the senators who prepared the report—that this law in the Northern Territory most certainly contravenes our international obligations. And, of course, they point out that the federal parliament is the body that has the right to make declarations, to carry resolutions and to pass legislation to accept our obligations internationally and to accept United Nations covenants and conventions. The report makes it clear that the Northern Territory legislation contravenes this absolutely.

It is also clear from the report that there is now a well established precedent in Australia that the federal parliament can overrule the laws of the Northern Territory. That principle was clearly established by the Prime Minister's action barely three years ago when he allowed legislation to be introduced to overrule the Northern Territory's legislation on euthanasia, which was not in any way contravening—as I am aware of it—any of our international obligations. He just did not like the legislation, so he approved some of his own backbenchers introducing legislation. He said it could be a conscience vote but knew that, because of the balance of numbers at that time after the very successful 1996 election result, he had the numbers on a conscience vote to force it through the parliament, which—unfortunately from my point of view—he did. I accepted at the time and have never argued that constitutionally the federal parliament has the power to intervene in Northern Territory legislation. That is in our Constitution. I just disagreed with the way it was cynically used by the Prime Minister when it suited him on that occasion.

He established the precedent. Now he has no argument and the Liberal Party has no argument that we are not able to intervene and that this is an interference in state or territory rights. They established the precedent, and now we have a piece of legislation before us that, even more importantly than the euthanasia bill in this parliament of nearly three years ago, is in accordance with our international obligations and which the federal parliament should express a view about. So I find it in one sense a delicious irony that the Prime Minister is now confronted with a revolt in his own party about this Northern Territory legislation and is now going to have to deal with it. I hope there are—as indicated in press reports today—at least seven members of the Liberal Party in the lower house who have the courage, and I would admire their courage, to cross the floor and vote with the opposition when the bill reaches the lower house, so that the bill can be carried.

But I now want to return to the speech of Senator Tambling, the senator representing the Country Liberal Party from the Northern Territory. Senator Tambling in all of his remarks in defending the Northern Territory mandatory sentencing legislation not once referred to the very tragic circumstances of the Wurramarrba boy who committed suicide after being sentenced to, I think, a year's jail for an extremely minor property offence. I think at the time he was charged with stealing a small amount of property that would have been worth no more than a couple of dollars. It might not have even been worth that. A year apparently was his sentence.

At the same time, we have had corporate crooks in Australia either getting suspended sentences, not going to jail or paying some fine—getting away with robbing shareholders of literally hundreds of millions of dollars. Only last week, Mr Bond was released from jail following a ruling by the High Court, on a legal technicality, to reduce his sentence to three years. He was convicted of stealing over $1 billion from Australian shareholders, the biggest property offence in Australia's history. He gets three years and is released on a technicality, and all the accounts in the press say they believe that he and his family have squirreled away many tens of millions of dollars of the money he stole from his shareholders, which he will now have access to in one way or the other, and the people who lost their money will not have any chance to get any of that money back. If it is three years for $1 billion but one year for a couple of dollars worth of property, it just shows why a lot of Australian people find the imbalance in these offences so troubling. Of course, we do not find in the Northern Territory that there is any mandatory sentence for white-collar crime, for company directors.


Senator Conroy —You can strangle journalists and you don't go to jail.


Senator SCHACHT —Thank you, Senator Conroy. We noticed that a former minister tried to strangle a journalist because he disagreed with the question. He had to resign from the party in the end, I understand.


Senator Conroy —But not over that.


Senator SCHACHT —No, it was probably some other thing he fell out with his party over. But he got away with making an assault on a journalist, physically attacking him, and did not go to jail—no mandatory sentence for that in the Northern Territory. No mandatory sentence in the Northern Territory for corporate—


Senator Ian Campbell —What about Gareth Evans threatening to garrotte someone in the chamber?


Senator SCHACHT —Senator Campbell, I have to say that you only have to say the words `Bronwyn Bishop' and that is an outstanding defence. Even you would agree with it.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Crowley)—Senator Schacht, give Mrs Bishop her proper title.


Senator SCHACHT —Mrs Bishop. I called her Bronwyn Bishop; the honourable member in the House of Representatives. However, I want to return to Senator Tambling's speech. There was no mention whatsoever in his speech about the imbalance between a teenage Aboriginal boy going to jail for absolutely minor property offences and what other people can get away with and not go to jail—for physical assault, which can result in a suspended sentence; for white-collar crime. If there was any consistency in the Northern Territory government they would be having mandatory sentences on those crimes. But we know they will not do that. The mandatory sentencing legislation in the Northern Territory in particular is designed to appeal to the most base motives: political purposes and to whip up hysteria to divert attention away from the shortcomings of the Northern Territory government.

As I listened to Senator Tambling's speech I was, first of all, disgusted that he made no mention of the tragic circumstances of the Wurramarrba boy committing suicide—no mention; not even a suggestion of an apology to the relatives, to the family; this was just completely ignored. That is why this issue is before us—because, unfortunately, a teenage boy committed suicide in jail. Senator Tambling, in defending the Northern Territory, said, `We don't want meddlesome people from the southern states telling us what to do.' On issues such as human rights—and this is a human rights issue—this parliament and this chamber have again and again passed motions in respect of which a number of countries around the world that do not have democratic governments immediately have said, `Don't meddle in our internal affairs.'

As I said at the beginning of my speech, I was the first chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Australian Parliament. We made representations again and again on human rights issues all around the world. Again, some people said we were a bunch of do-gooders, but those representations were in accordance with the principles of democratic government, of individual political human rights, and this parliament has expressed those concerns strongly. For example, I do not know how many times this chamber has carried resolutions supporting human rights and political rights for the Tibetan people. We have carried resolutions in this chamber. When I raised this matter on behalf of this parliament when leading a human rights delegation to China and Tibet in 1991, guess what the answer was? `Don't interfere in the internal affairs of China or Tibet. It is an internal issue. The rest of the world has no right to express an opinion.' And that is exactly what Senator Tambling is claiming—that no-one else outside the Northern Territory has got the right to express a view about what is fundamentally a human rights issue.


Senator Ian Campbell —He didn't say that at all.


Senator SCHACHT —You read the speech, Senator Campbell.


Senator Ian Campbell —He didn't say you can't express an opinion, you dope.


Senator SCHACHT —Read the speech. He bags the Labor Party. He even bags members of your party. This is what Senator Tambling said—


Senator Ian Campbell —Where does it say you can't express an opinion? You liar.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESID-ENT —Order! Senator Schacht.


Senator SCHACHT —He said:

It amazes me, and I am sad to say disgusts me, that interfering, humbugging, busybodies from southern states cannot understand—


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESID-ENT —Order, Senator Schacht! Senator Campbell, you will withdraw your remarks, please.


Senator Ian Campbell —Which ones in particular, Madam Acting Deputy President?


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESID-ENT —You know full well which remarks. I let the first one go, but you will certainly withdraw them please. They are unparliamentary.


Senator Ian Campbell —Senator Schacht was misrepresenting Senator Tambling. At no stage did he say that people from the southern states can't express an opinion.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESID-ENT —You have no capacity to debate it, Senator.


Senator Ian Campbell —I think Senator Schacht should apologise to Senator Tambling. Of course, because you have ruled so, I will unconditionally withdraw any remark which offends against the standing orders.


Senator SCHACHT —Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. I certainly stand by my comments about the thrust of what Senator Tambling was saying. Again and again, Senator Tambling has complained that this is interference. I have to say that that is bad luck for Senator Tambling and for the Northern Territory government. A number of us are going to interfere when we see a human rights abuse taking place, and this is clearly a human rights abuse. We cannot be hypocritical in this place and carry resolutions condemning human rights abuses all around the world and then, when it is identified that we have one in the Northern Territory, not carry resolutions or make our view known. We weaken our position to defend human rights elsewhere in the world when we run dead, run scared or give way to this narrow view of state rights.

I have to say that Senator Tambling and the other apologists for the Northern Territory government have proved to me that they are the heirs or the successors to those people over the last few hundred years in the British parliament and elsewhere. The same sort of speech that he made was made by those people who defended the retention of slavery 150 years ago and the retention of child labour 100 years ago. They were the people who 80 years ago said that women should not have the vote. This is the argument that he puts up to say that there is no right to interfere or express a view when, clearly, a human right has been breached. That is why I was disgusted by the tenor of the remarks of Senator Tambling and other apologists. It is time for this parliament, and it is quite appropriate for this chamber, to carry the legislation moved by Senator Brown. I hope there are at least seven courageous people in the Liberal Party in the lower house who will enable the bill to be put through there.

Until mandatory sentencing legislation is removed, our position to be able to go around the world to argue, quite rightly, about whether there are human rights abuses in other countries will be weakened. No country has a perfect record; we always have our problems. I have to say that this country is, by and large, bipartisan on many of these issues of human rights. We have raised them consistently. But I have to say that I find it demeaning that we now have to take action in this place to defend Australia's reputation against what is happening, particularly in the Northern Territory. Senator Tambling's last great defence was that it is democratic—there was a democratic vote in the Northern Territory and we should ignore any other issue and just accept that there was a duly elected government. As I just pointed out, there were duly elected majorities in the English parliament 300 or 400 years ago that actually supported the retention of serfdom; 250 years ago a majority of the English parliament was in favour of retaining the slave trade; 150 years ago a parliamentary majority was elected that favoured child labour being used in Great Britain; and 100 years ago a majority of the English parliament was against giving women the vote.


Senator Ian Campbell —Fifty years ago the Schacht family were part of the Nazi regime.


Senator SCHACHT —But there were some individual members of parliament who said that, despite the majority of what the—


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Crowley)—Order! Senator Campbell, you will withdraw that remark.


Senator Ian Campbell —You will have to advise me very clearly what remark is unparliamentary in anything I have said by way of interjection, when you have this poor apology of a senator trying to link Senator Tambling to the slave trade of 300 years ago.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESID-ENT —Senator, I asked you to withdraw the reference to Senator Schacht's family being part of the Nazi regime. Please withdraw that remark.


Senator Ian Campbell —It is a historical fact; he knows that. He was the treasurer in the Third Reich.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESID-ENT —Senator, will you withdraw?


Senator Ian Campbell —No. Does Senator Schacht take offence at that? Is it unparliamentary?


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESID-ENT —Senator Campbell, I have asked you to withdraw that remark. If you don't, we will have to proceed. Would you please withdraw that remark.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator George Campbell)—Does Senator Schacht take offence at it or is it unparliamentary? Is he going to apologise to Senator Tambling for saying that he supports the slave trade?


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESID-ENT —It is unparliamentary, Senator—it is as simple as that. Please withdraw that remark.


Senator Ian Campbell —If you rule that that is unparliamentary, of course I will withdraw. Do you rule that it is unparliamentary for Senator Schacht to say that Senator Tambling supports the slave trade, as he has clearly inferred on two occasions?


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESID-ENT —Senator, this is not the time for you to debate the points raised or any conclusions that you draw from Senator Schacht's remarks.


Senator SCHACHT —Madam Acting Deputy President, I have never really objected to anyone calling me what they like in this place. I have to just point out to Senator Campbell that both my mother and father served in the Australian Defence Force in the Second World War. My father served 4½ years in Egypt and Italy fighting the Nazis, so I think that more than indicates where my family stands on the view of Nazi Germany, et cetera.

What I was saying, and I say it again, is that the import of Senator Tambling's remarks and the view that he philosophically put is, `You leave us alone in the Northern Territory because this is popular.' I was pointing out that, historically, others have claimed that of all the other great social issues of the British parliament, the predecessor to this parliament—others have claimed that same view for the slave trade, child labour, refusing women votes and any other social reforms. But, fortunately, there were one or two members of the British parliament at that time who stood up and argued the case to say that this had to change because it was an abuse of human rights. We are saying that the Northern Territory legislation is an abuse of human rights and that this parliament has a constitutional right to knock that legislation over. I hope the parliament of Australia shows the courage to do that—to get rid of this obnoxious piece of legislation that should be knocked over and removed from the statute books of the Northern Territory. I also think the Western Australian legislation should go as well, even though it is not quite as obnoxious in its practice, as the committee reported. But it is true that when you make speeches in this place—appealing to redneck populism as the basis of what Senator Tambling said—then some of us are going to stand up and knock it on the head. If you want to go back philosophically and read your Edmund Burke, you will find that members of parliament are here as representatives to have a wider range of views than just to automatically reflect what is the most populist view at the last second they spoke to somebody. That is what true liberalism was supposed to be about, Senator Campbell, but you gave up on that a long time ago.

This is a very important piece of legislation. If this legislation is not carried by the Australian parliament, we will have a stain on our reputation of promoting human rights not only in Australia but around the world. I commend the bill to the Senate. I express my absolute support for it and hope that by the end of this week at least the Senate will have shown that Australia has got a decent reputation on human rights. (Time expired)