House debates

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Private Members' Business

Death Penalty

4:31 pm

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes:

(a) that 10 October 2018 was World Day Against the Death Penalty;

(b) the bi-partisan position of Australian governments over many years in their continued opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances for all people and their commitment to pursuing the universal abolition of the death penalty through all avenues available; and

(c) that the theme of the 2018 World Day Against the Death Penalty is to raise awareness of the inhumane living conditions of people sentenced to death;

(2) acknowledges the Australian Government's Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty, which details Australia's reasons for opposing the death penalty because:

(a) it is irrevocable, miscarriages of justice cannot be rectified, and no legal system is safe from error;

(b) it denies any possibility of rehabilitation to the convicted individual;

(c) there is no convincing evidence that it is a more effective deterrent than long term or life imprisonment; and

(d) it is unfair—it is used disproportionately against the poor, people with intellectual or mental disabilities and minority groups; and

(3) notes that on World Day Against the Death Penalty, the Australian film Guilty, which documents the final 72 hours in the life of Myuran Sukumaran, the Bali Nine convicted criminal who, along with Andrew Chan was executed by a firing squad in Indonesia on 29 April 2015, was screened in every state and territory in Australia.

On 10 October we commemorated World Day Against the Death Penalty. On that day, we, as a nation and as members of a concerned international community, reaffirmed our commitment to the pursuit of a world free of the death penalty. On 10 October this year we received the very welcome news that the Malaysian government has decided that it will abolish the death penalty. It's my hope this will encourage other nations in our region to follow suit, reigniting the debate about the relevance and role of capital punishment in today's society.

I hold strong views against the death penalty. To me, capital punishment is the most cruel and inhumane response to crime. My opposition to the capital punishment is universal; it's not only when it involves Australians. It is inevitably associated with the miscarriage of justice, the inadvertent execution of innocents and the disproportionate execution of poor people and those of religious minority groups. The death penalty is also irreversible, and no legal system is free of error. As long as the death penalty exists, innocent people will be killed. In 2016, Amnesty recorded 60 cases where prisoners were sentenced to death but were found to be innocent of the crime with which they were charged.

Most credible research also indicates that capital punishment does not deter crime. In 2009, a survey conducted by the University of Colorado, which remains one of the most authoritative studies conducted on the issue of deterrence, found that 88 per cent of the nation's criminologists did not believe that the death penalty had any value in terms of deterring crime. This finding is borne out by the actual experience in Canada. In Canada, they stopped executing in 1976. The murder rate has in fact fallen by some 44 per cent.

In modern society, I believe we've got the adequate means to punish people for the crimes they commit, but I also believe we have a process to assist people with genuine rehabilitation. The international community has come a long way towards abolishing capital punishment. Recent statistics from Amnesty reveal that 142 countries now have abolished the death penalty, and that compares to only 16 back in 1977. Unfortunately, there remain 56 countries which actively retain the death penalty.

Australia can be very proud of its longstanding and principled opposition to capital punishment and its support for the work of the United Nations on abolition. Most recently, as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Australia pledged to continue its strong commitment to the global abolition of the death penalty. I'm pleased that the Australian government has recently released its whole-of-government strategy outlining Australia's overarching approach to pursuing global abolition of the death penalty. The strategy implements one of the main recommendations of the report compiled by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade entitled A world without the death penalty. The strategy focuses on bilateral and multilateral advocacy, engagement with civil society organisations, support for research in the field, the need to strengthen the safeguards currently in place to prevent exposing people to the death penalty and the role that various government agencies can play as part of this advocacy. Simply put, we have a responsibility to continue to use our various platforms to support, inspire and encourage other nations to move towards abolition.

Digressing slightly, we should spare a thought for the people of the Philippines, where the death penalty does not exist at the moment but where the rule of law has now been set aside by their government, which has granted police impunity, effectively giving them a licence to kill based on mere suspicion without any judicial oversight. I conclude with the words of the former Chief Justice of South African Constitutional Court, Ismail Mahomed:

The death penalty sanctions the deliberate annihilation of life …

It is the ultimate and the most incomparably extreme form of punishment … It is the last, the most devastating and the most irreversible recourse of the criminal law, involving as it necessarily does, the planned and calculated termination of life itself; the destruction of the greatest and most precious gift which is bestowed on all humankind.

Photo of Lucy WicksLucy Wicks (Robertson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is there a seconder for this motion?

Photo of Maria VamvakinouMaria Vamvakinou (Calwell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

4:37 pm

Photo of Chris CrewtherChris Crewther (Dunkley, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this important motion moved today regarding World Day Against the Death Penalty. It is an important issue to raise, in particular noting Australia's own abolition of the death penalty many years ago and our continued stance against the death penalty not only in Australia but also in our region and internationally. Our position and the position of the Australian government in a bipartisan fashion across parliament and all parties has been that the death penalty is wrong, and we are very clear and unequivocal in our opposition to the death penalty. We oppose the death penalty in all circumstances for all people. We are committed to its universal abolition, and we will pursue that through all possible avenues.

Recently on Monday 15 October at Parliament House the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Marise Payne, officially launched Australia's whole-of-government strategy for the global abolition of the death penalty. Australia is committed to being an international leader in the efforts to end use of the death penalty. The strategy, which is the first of its kind in Australia, will see our nation work very closely with partners around our region and around the world to protect and promote our shared human rights and responsibilities to take action against the death penalty wherever it is supported. It outlines practical measures and steps that ministers, parliamentarians and Australia's network of embassies, missions and others can take to advance the global goal of abolishing the death penalty.

It is built four particular principles. Firstly, the death penalty is irrevocable and no legal system is free of error. If the convicted is later found innocent, that is a miscarriage of justice that cannot be rectified. Secondly, it denies the possibility of rehabilitation of the convicted individual. Thirdly, the death penalty is no more effective as a deterrent than is long-term or life imprisonment. Some would even argue that life imprisonment is a greater penalty, for those who have to spend that time not only go through a rehabilitation period but also get to the point of acknowledging their own crimes. Fourthly, it is unfairly and disproportionately used against the most vulnerable members of many societies. In some countries—in some rogue nations—it also is used against those who are critics of the government in circumstances where, for example, individuals have simply stood up for human rights and the rights of the individual.

As a member of UN Human Rights Council for the first time this year, Australia is advocating for the abolition of the death penalty and it's doing so in a constructive and pragmatic manner. We are working across parties, across both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party and with the crossbenchers, to ensure that we are taking action and are taking pragmatic steps to encourage those in our region and around the world to abolish the death penalty—respecting, of course, the cultural and social contexts of all states who retain the death penalty around the world, particularly in our own region of influence in the Indo-Pacific. Our diplomatic efforts and our diplomatic network, through our ambassadors, ministers and others, will continue to create a clear and articulated plan for engaging with all non-abolitionist states. DFAT will also engage closely with civil society through a new forum established by the strategy. Lastly, the consultative group will meet in the margins of DFAT's annual NGO human rights forum in Canberra. This group will share advocacy priorities, update civil society on bilateral and multilateral trends in abolition, and coordinate responses to individual cases, as well as exploring joint public diplomacy opportunities.

Finally, this strategy is focusing on Australia's advocacy as opposed to just operational issues. This requires police-to-police assistance and work through our aid programs. I note that through my chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs and Aid Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade I'm also a strong advocate, and our committee is a strong advocate, for working with our partners through our aid program to abolish the death penalty. I'm very pleased today to once again support this motion, and I thank the member for moving it.

4:41 pm

Photo of Maria VamvakinouMaria Vamvakinou (Calwell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased today to speak on the motion raised by the member for Fowler, which affirms Australia's commitment to the abolition of the death penalty on a global level and also acknowledges the bipartisan position of Australian governments over many years in our continued opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances for all people. I want to take this opportunity to also acknowledge the work that the member for Fowler has done over the course of many years in this place in pursuing this issue.

The death penalty has, as far as I'm concerned, no place in a modern society, and my own personal opposition to it is absolute. It comes from my own profound belief that no human being has the right to take the life of another human being under any circumstances. It is also central to the tenant of our belief—and my belief—in human dignity and the power of forgiveness and mercy. These are values that we have seen expressed also by the broader Australian community. They did so—it was palpable—during the period when we, as a nation and as a parliament, appealed for clemency to be granted to the two Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Also, ten years prior to that, there was the effort put into appealing for clemency for Van Tuong Nguyen, who was executed in Singapore in 2005.

The parliament's opposition to the death penalty, as has been noted by the member for Dunkley and the member for Fowler, is bipartisan. In 2010, this parliament passed laws to ensure Australia's continued prohibition of the death penalty, which were described at the time by the former Attorney-General Senator George Brandis as a joint condemnation of torture and the death penalty.

Over 140 countries have abolished or put in place a moratorium against the death penalty. But many nations, albeit fewer than 40, still impose capital punishment. Amnesty International reports that in 2017 there were at least 933 executions across 23 countries. I also want to welcome, as my colleagues did, the announcement by the Malaysian government on 10 October that it plans to abolish the death penalty and introduce a moratorium on executions immediately. Australia and other like-minded nations have a collective responsibility to advocate for the abolition of capital punishment, and we must do this not just globally but also within our own region. I'm pleased that we actually lead the way. As a parliament we have pursued ways we can advocate for the abolition of the death penalty within our region.

Amnesty International estimates that there were at least 21,919 people on death row at the end of 2017. The death penalty should never be an option. There are a whole lot of reasons it should never be an option. Some of the more obvious ones—and they have been spoken about many times—are the sheer human error in the legal system and deliberate miscarriage of justice, as has been referred to by the member for Dunkley, where governments choose to punish people, especially dissidents. In 2016 Amnesty International found 60 cases where prisoners who had been sentenced to death were subsequently found not guilty. The death penalty cannot be reversed. It is irreversible. There's no compensation great enough to make up for the erroneous loss of a human life. There is no denying that reprehensible conduct must be met with action by our judicial system, but there is no evidence that capital punishment reduces the incidence of crime.

I also want to spend a bit of time congratulating and commending Australian cinemas across our country for screening the film Guilty on World Day Against the Death Penalty. Guilty is a powerful and important film which documents the final 72 hours in the life of Myuran Sukumaran. It shows firsthand the impact that this barbaric practice has on the convicted, the families and the community, but it also shows the tragic waste of life, particularly of a rehabilitated man who made a big mistake when he was a younger man. I want to end with a quote from the director of the film, Mr Matthew Sleeth, who said:

This film was a way to try to do something out of a very traumatic situation for everybody involved …

After living through it and watching the excruciating slowness of it and the intimacy of it and the effect it has on families and the lawyers and anyone else who really came into contact with it, I was completely convinced – even more than I was before – about how wrong the death penalty is.

4:47 pm

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would also like to lend my voice in thanking the member for Fowler for moving this motion, which serves as a reminder in this House not just of Australia's commitment to abolishing the death penalty but also of our bipartisan position over many years in continuing to pursue the abolition of the death penalty not just here but worldwide. In doing so, I should acknowledge also the member for Dunkley for his contribution here today. And also I acknowledge the Australian government's strategy for the abolition of the death penalty, which details Australia's reasons for opposing the death penalty.

The theme for this year's World Day Against the Death Penalty is to raise awareness of the inhumane living conditions of people sentenced to death. Indeed, one of the most prominent reasons for the abolition of the death penalty is its arbitrary application, which can never be ruled out. The death penalty is often used in a disproportionate manner against the poor, against minorities, and against members of racial, ethnic, political and religious groups. I must also make mention here of related laws, particularly in countries like Pakistan, of apostasy and blasphemy that are punishable by execution. I reiterate here my hope that those laws be abolished not just in Pakistan but also in other countries, where they are—blasphemy and apostasy laws in particular—used arbitrarily to condemn people to death.

While the theme is improving the inhumane living conditions, I think it is appropriate that we should also not take our eye off the ultimate goal of the abolition of capital punishment across the world. In preparing for today, I had a look at Australia's record on this. It's quite interesting to note that, while we abolished the death penalty in 1973 at the Commonwealth level in respect of offences under the law of the Commonwealth and territories, state legislation in some states took a little while to catch up. New South Wales was the last to abolish the death penalty, in 1985. Though it had abolished the penalty for murder in 1955, it retained the death penalty for treason and piracy right up until 1985, which really wasn't that long ago when you think about it.

It also shows how far we've moved in such a relatively short period of time—a matter of decades. We now have over 140 nations that have abolished the death penalty, but there are still too many people being executed around the world, including in countries that are our close allies. It is important for us to continually be reminded of the opportunity for Australia to take a lead in encouraging the United Nations to support a global moratorium on the death penalty and to use our voice and our position in the region to do so. I trust and hope that the government strategy for the abolition of the death penalty goes some way to doing that.

The reasons why the death penalty should be abolished have been outlined here today by several speakers. Probably one of the most apparent reasons is that it risks the execution of innocent people. The justice system is fallible. Humans are fallible, and in many systems humans are often the weakest link. There are several cases of innocent people who have been executed, most recently in the US, for example, for crimes that they did not commit. It's also incompatible with human rights and human dignity. As a country that considers itself progressive, particularly in the upholding of the very basic human rights, it would be remiss of us to not continually state our opposition to the death penalty and to do everything that we can to ensure that more and more countries sign up to abolishing or at least having a moratorium on the death penalty.

Finally, the death penalty doesn't deter crime.

Debate adjourned.