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Speech to the Commonwealth Lawyers Association Regional Law Conference

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Speech to the Commonwealth Lawyers Association Regional Law Conference

20 April 2012



 First, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders, both past and present  I also acknowledge the Chair of this session and Honorary Life President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, Dr Dato Cyrus Das.  My fellow speakers and distinguished guests.

It is a pleasure to be here today to address such an esteemed audience of Australian and International attendees to the Commonwealth Lawyers Association Regional Law Conference.

The Commonwealth has proven to be a remarkably resilient entity, based as it is on shared values of the rule of law, respect for human rights, and democratic governance.

Im sure you feel, as I do, that anything we can do to further these values is worth our time and effort. And conferences such as these allow us to share knowledge and experiences as we live and work in a rapidly changing world.

As a relatively new Commonwealth Attorney-General, today I would like to talk to you about what actions we are taking to deliver stronger human rights and security protections, and improved access to our justice system, in this second decade of the 21st Century:

First, we are adopting new technologies to better protect individual property rights and border security, while guarding against the dangers such technologies pose in the hands of criminals and terrorists.

Our legal system and body of laws must both keep pace with technological rapid change, and remain responsive to new forms of criminal and terrorist behaviour.

When bombs can be created in backyard sheds, using information from the internet and incitements to racial and religious violence can be transmitted at the click of a mouse we must recognise that national security no longer begins and ends at national borders.

All peace-loving peoples, whether in Australia, the wider Commonwealth or in any nation, have a fundamental right to go about their lives knowing they are safe and protected from harm.

Second, we are strengthening legal protections and support structures for our children, both in Australia and our region. In a world where families are increasingly mobile, there is also a greater risk of disputes about care, treatment or abuse crossing national borders.

Children are often at greatest risk in times of upheaval or rapid change. We must not forget that childrens rights are human rights not an optional extra.

One area I am especially focussed on is childrens and young peoples right to grow up healthy and free from addiction, particularly to our most pervasive drug: tobacco.

And third, we are acting to strengthen all Australian access to our natios judicial and dispute resolution systems.

Whether you are major corporation, small business owner or private individual equitable access to seek redress for a wrong, through an independent judiciary, is a cornerstone of Australian democracy.

Australia has a reputation for fairness, for giving everyone a fair go. If we cannot deliver that fairness in our courts, we cannot truly say our reputation is deserved.

For all of us who have grappled with new technology or forms of communication from the iPhone to Twitter it sometimes feels easier to throw your hands up and leave it to our kids.

But from fields as diverse as national security to copyright law, keeping pace with global technological change is vital. We must always act to maximise the benefits, and minimise the potential harms, of this brave new world.

And an emerging but undeniable right in this world must be the protection of our personal identities from attack or manipulation.

Technology has changed all of our lives for the better we can communicate with loved ones on the other side of the world, we can conduct business at any time of day, we can find out news in an instant which would have previously taken days or weeks.

And in Australia, both the Government and community are embracing these opportunities as we roll out our National Broadband Network to homes across the country.

So there is much to celebrate although, as a politician, one can occasionally nostalgically look back to the days before the 24 hour news cycle!

But these tecnological advances also create opportunities for criminals and terrorists, and provide opportunities for cyber crime and cyber espionage.

To this end, the Australian Government is undertaking significant work to harness this new technology, to both facilitate business and block those intending to cause harm.

As one example: Our international visitors, or those recently returning to Australia, may have noticed the Smartgate system in our major international airports.

Increasing the proportion of travellers using Smartgate will reduce the numbers that require manual processing by Customs officers. This will both save travellers time, but importantly free up officers for greater intelligence-led and strategic border protection work.

And to go to another extreme: our livelihoods and very identities now largely rest on documents potentially accessible and vulnerable to manipulation online.

Document verification may not sound particularly sexy, but it is now a critical tool to control the validity of online transactions. Just think of how your personal and financial security is reliant on secure transfer and validation of information from our banking and finance sectors, Australias large superannuation sector, to maritime and aviation security.

And in contrast, how verification could support the fight against money laundering, terrorist financing and other organised criminal activity.

This is why the Australian Government is looking very closely at ways we can deliver a simple, affordable and real-time verification service with national coverage.

Reducing the costs of client identification will allow businesses to invest more in their products and marketing, while reducing their exposure to fraud. Individuals will be able to make full use of online opportunities without the pervasive fear of falling into the hands of cyber criminals.

Alongside this work, which is still under development, Australia is bringing its personal property regime into the 21st century.

On 30 January the Personal Properties Security Register went live. It allows anyone in Australia to register and verify ownership of personal property, from cars, to farm machinery, to works of art.

The new register while undeniably complex to develop and implement is an example of what can happen when the Government and the Business sector roll up their sleeves and work together to develop a system that aims to reduce complexity for users all at an affordable cost.

Beyond identity security of course rests personal security: the right of all peoples to be free of violence and extremism.

Australia has not proven immune to the growth of terrorism around the globe.

In the face of atrocities such as the Bali bombings, which so affected us and our regional neighbour Indonesia, we have acted to bring our counter-terrorism capability to a rapid maturity.

Despite this, would-be terrorists remain active in our region and within our nation.

We would be foolish to think that Australias high standard of living, strong educational system, and widespread community acceptance of different races and faiths automatically precludes the growth of home grown extremists.

An Independent Review of the Intelligence Services was publically released earlier this year. It makes clear the threat environment is constantly evolving and our capacity to respond needs to evolve as well.

In this space I must, in my role as the Commonwealths First Law Officer, administer the resources that guard our national and personal security.

For example: in February we released a consultation draft of a Regulation Impact Statement looking at options for reducing the national security risks associated with precursor chemicals to homemade explosives.

I need only refer to London in 2005, or the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, to see what devastation can be caused by homemade or farm-use chemicals.

Alongside regulatory changes, our defence, intelligence and police forces must have the capability to properly defend our borders, investigate, and pursue charges against those planning organised violence against the modern, democratic state of Australia.

I make no apology for this Government working to strengthen the investigatory powers of our agencies, tempered by appropriate legislative and structural safeguards.

This is why I have ordered a review of the legislation governing Australis Telecommunications intercept powers, with a view to bringing forward amendments that reflect the world we live in today.

This is also why the Commonwealth funds important national security investments like the three high-tech Bear Armoured Rescue Vehicles, which will soon be provided to New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania. These vehicles are designed to help police deal with dangerous situations such as hostage incidents or acts of terrorism

But just as important as regulatory reforms and national security equipment investments, are actions to draw potential disaffected young people away from violent action and into our community.

A few weeks ago I launched the latest round of a popular community grant program that aims to counter violent extremism in some of our communities at risk.

This program gives vulnerable communities the tools they need to build resilience against extremist behaviour. And so ultimately it is direct engagement with those at risk including them, not shunning is perhaps our best defence against growing our own terrorists.

Of course, it is our children and young people who are at greatest risk of exploitation and abuse whether that be political, financial or physical.

In a world where so much of our lives are now open to others, and we can travel to another country with as much effort as our grandparents took to travel to the next town, children face new forms of old threats.

That is why the Australian Government is acting to strengthen legal protections and community safeguards for children both here and in the Asia-Pacific region.

Two good examples of the practical steps Australia is taking to protect children from harm include legislative action to criminalise servile or forced marriages and strengthening protections in response to family violence.

This Government strongly supports a childs right to a meaningful relationship with both parents where this is safe. Unfortunately, there are times when children are the victims of, or witness to, family violence incidents.

The Government has acted so that, from 7 June so that disincentives to disclose family violence to the courts have been removed and that appropriate action is taken to prioritise the safety of children in family law disputes. Through these changes, we are placing children and their safety front and centre in Family Law matters.

Forced marriage is a serious abuse that occurs both in Australia and overseas. It places young people at risk and results in harmful consequences including loss of education, restriction of movement and autonomy, and emotional and physical abuse.

In criminalising forced marriage we are making it very clear that this practice is not acceptable and has no place in Australia.

Importantly, these changes also have the potential to encourage victims, family members and friends to come forward and report the crime.

Another new form of an old threat that can doom young people to a shortened life of ill-health, and a horrible death is the marketing of tobacco. As older generations of smokers die out, and governments around the world tighten advertising and sale laws, Big Tobacco has become remarkably clever at selling their deadly wares to a new generation.

Packets are the best, and in Australia, now the only way tobacco brands can differentiate themselves and attract users.

You may be aware that Australia has passed world-first legislation mandating that all cigarettes and other tobacco products be sold in plain, drab brown packs (along with expanded graphic health warnings) from 1 December this year and that major tobacco companies are currently challenging those restrictions in the High Court in fact through hearings just this week.

Good tobacco control recognises that all children have the right to grow up healthy and free from addiction, without becoming the victims of a very calculated marketing campaign that promotes deadly products as fresh, cool, and attractive.

Australias courts system is known for its excellence and independence. Yesterday you heard from former New South Wales Chief Justice the Honourable Jim Spigelman, and tomorrow

from the current High Court Chief Justice the Honourable Chief Justice Robert French, who m sure did and will eloquently describe the strengths of the Australian judiciary.

As a Labor Attorney-General, one of my main priorities is to ensure our judicial and legal systems work equally well for those with few resources as for those with many.

I want a justice system in this country that is geared as much to the small one-off litigant seeking redress, as it is for our large corporations who utilise the courts as part of their every-day business.

I am therefore working with the Federal Courts to implement a reform agenda to foster openness and transparency, accessibility, efficient administration and timely resolution, and embrace of new technologies to facilitate decision-making.

Some examples within this reform program include the creation of a dedicated Military Court, tightening suppression and non-publication orders regarding court proceedings, and establishing a clear and accountable system for handling complaints against judges.

Of course we must take these steps within finite resources, which requires a system operating as efficiently as possible, and with structural incentives that encourage the use of other, less formal dispute resolution mechanisms where appropriate.

To do this, we need to make sure that resources are used as effectively and efficiently as possible so that the courts themselves are best used, but also that the often unequal resources of the litigants does not unduly affect the outcome.

Australia may be an island nation, but it is an integral part of the community of nations that form the Commonwealth.

I am conscious that Australia must act in support of, and be supported by this community, to help preserve and protect the legal and political institutions that make the Commonwealth great.

We face many challenges: the risks new technologies pose to our security and way of life; the threat of terrorism; and the worry that our children will not enjoy the protections and legal rights we have enjoyed.

Through our joint efforts, I am confident the values underpinning the Commonwealth will continue to prove remarkably resilient throughout this Century.

Thank you.


Media contact: The Attorney-General's Office (02) 6277 7300