Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 September 2006


Victoria: Labor Government

7:04 pm

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I listened with interest as Senator Fifield stood up in this place last week and talked of ‘freedom fighters’, giving a commentary on the good work of the Victorian Labor government. The term he used—‘freedom fighter’—conjures up images of people fighting for their freedom, people like Nelson Mandela, who spent 32 years in jail. Yet an honourable senator such as Senator Fifield praises freedom fighters whilst being part of a government that limits freedoms and personal liberty like some totalitarian state—a government which goes out of its way to introduce thousands and thousands of pages of legislation aimed solely at curbing freedoms, freedoms hard-won over hundreds of years of our parliamentary heritage.

Examples of this government’s disregard for freedoms immediately spring to mind: legislation they brought forward that brings back the crime of sedition; legislation that makes it possible for citizens to be imprisoned from 48 hours to 14 days without having to charge them with an offence; legislation which allows the state to monitor your every movement and listen to your every conversation. In fact, the government have such an appetite for restricting freedoms that they even give enthusiastic approval to other states imprisoning our citizens without charge. David Hicks is a living example of how this government are ‘fighting freedom’ wherever it occurs. Another classic example is legislation such as Work Choices, hundreds of pages long, which prohibits Australians from having basic freedoms at work—freedoms such as acting collectively, having unions access their workplaces and taking part in union activities.

So what would Senator Fifield’s hero, Arthur Bruce Smith, think of all this? He would firstly chide Senator Fifield for his ignorance of how parliament and executive government came into being. Students of history such as Smith know that most protections afforded to us by our system of government have come out of a fight by common people over hundreds of years—a fight against the unjust and unnecessary use of power toward individuals and the community. This has taken place against monarchs, the military, states and corporations.

Next, Bruce Smith would probably give Senator Fifield a well-deserved dressing down for his absolute contempt for individual liberty, as shown by his government. Finally, he would probably stand for office against Senator Fifield, given his disgust at the volumes of legislation which has shown this federal government as fighting freedom. But was Senator Fifield’s hero all that the honourable senator makes him out to be? It turns out that he supported the principle of equal pay for equal work and worked towards industrial harmony rather than disputation. In fact, he founded the Victorian Board of Conciliation. In the 1880s, he stated that the Trades Hall leaders were, ‘on the whole cool-headed, exceedingly amenable to reason’. Bruce Smith was outspoken, sticking to his beliefs and speaking out against the populist racist sentiment at the time. He even took on his own leader over his embrace of popular racist sentiment for short-term electoral gain. He stood by his principles and acted upon them. Senator Fifield could do well to follow his example, rather than heap hollow praise.

So, having shown that Senator Fifield has ignored his hero and ultimately trounced the true spirit of liberalism, we move on to other arguments, where he claims to be correct, to see what other false notions we can uncover. Senator Fifield was right when he talked of democracy being slapped in the face in Victoria. As I listened to him, I nodded knowingly, having seen the conservatives slap it around ferociously in the upper house of the Victorian parliament. They did it for over a century.

We now have an upper house where democracy takes pride of place. Far from its origins as a house for the landed gentry, it is now a place where one vote has one value. Victoria is constantly abuzz with activity, regaining its vibrant culture and becoming a state where Victorians are proud to reside. This transformation has been in no small part due to a state government which values people above dollars and looks to combine a vibrant democracy with a vibrant economy and society. Labor is ensuring training and education, health services and equal opportunity to work toward a prosperous future. It has been the Labor government which has driven a sensible economic agenda, whilst ushering in just social policy for the collective common good.

Whilst I have already mentioned ground-breaking democratic change, I have not yet touched on an area of policy that I value above most—human rights. This is an area where Senator Fifield finds the Bracks government objectionable, stating that it has put forward meddling legislation that defeats freedom and liberty. Like so many assertions from the good senator, it is completely wrong. The Victorian government introduced the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006, providing a basic framework protecting rights for all Victorians. This sets down rights that we in Victoria all assume we have but which were not protected by law or which were scattered across common law in a haphazard way. The Victorian government introduced the charter in a most open and consultative way, with an independent committee spending several months travelling across the state, listening to 2,500 submissions, and 94 per cent of those supported better protection of human rights.

This commonsense move simplifies Victorian laws and brings together in one piece of legislation basic rights such as the right to vote, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom from forced work or degrading treatment. A charter of human rights ensures that Victorian governments, present and future, value the fundamental rights of all Victorians. Courts will be able to refer legislation to parliament for review if they find it inconsistent with the rights charter. Senator Fifield is dead wrong when he states that this legislation will hand to the judiciary the power to make laws. The judiciary has never had the ability to make laws and still does not, nor will it have the power to strike down legislation.

The rights in the charter are based on those enshrined in the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Senator Fifield probably attacks such praiseworthy legislation out of guilt for his own government’s appalling record on human rights. He abides by the absurd mantra that to define a right is to limit it. I thought Australians had rights such as freedom of speech, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment without charge and freedom to associate. If we look at the current situation then we see it is clear we do not have these rights. This argument, like most of Senator Fifield’s commentary, is not based on reality.

Another piece of ground-breaking legislation from the Victorian government that Senator Fifield finds objectionable is the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. This is important legislation for our time, given that we must live in harmony. Senator Fifield believes that this act restricts our freedom of speech. Nothing could be further from the truth. It provides protection for Victorians from vilification on racial and religious grounds and looks to ensure that people are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their race or religious beliefs. It prohibits racial or religious vilification, as well as promoting the right to engage in robust discussion, as long as it does not vilify others. The act does not prohibit freedom of speech, nor does it prohibit religious instruction.

Faith leaders have given in principle support for the act, acknowledging that the right to practise and debate religion in a free and democratic society carries with it responsibilities to respect others. It has been acknowledged by the judiciary that the act does not impair free speech but is reserved for extreme circumstances. Yet we still see Senator Fifield trying to justify an absurd position on this legislation. In comments to this chamber, he wholeheartedly agreed with racial vilification laws, yet he thinks that religious vilification should be acceptable in the eyes of the law. According to Senator Fifield, it seems that it is one thing to be vilified on the basis of your colour, yet if it is due to your faith then you are on your own. Vilification is vilification. I find it extremely concerning, given the constant barrage of remarks coming from this government regarding Muslims, that we would see a government member believing that religious vilification should be acceptable.

So, in conclusion, if I am to take Senator Fifield at his word, it is always time to stand up for individual freedoms and liberty. I am glad the Bracks government has done just that, with the ground-breaking legislation such as the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act and the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. I only hope that Senator Fifield finds some way to discuss his own position with his long-gone hero in an attempt to ensure he remains true to freedom and liberty, given his poor record so far. With the next election looming, it may be his last chance.