December 23

Why they don’t want submissions

You may have wondered why submissions on Senator Brown’s bill for a republican plebiscite are being discouraged. After all they could not discourage submissions more than by requiring them to be made when the country is on holidays.

So why are submissions being discouraged? Father Brennan, a most passionate republican, is to chair the committee on a human rights bill.  A recent comment of his may contain  the answer.

This is the committee, incidentally, which does not include one person known to be opposed to such a bill.

The Committee is to seek out the diverse range of views held by the community about the protection and promotion of human rights.

Insisting that it should not be assumed that the committee will report in favour of a bill on the due date, 31 July 2009, Father Brennan says the task of the committee is to set out faithfully what they hear in broad-ranging consultations and to provide some assessment of options that do not violate parliamentary sovereignty.

 In an opinion piece in The Australian ( “Debate's terms not slanted towards a bill,” 22 December, 2008), he refers to three  matters which indicate community feeling towards  a bill of rights.

One is the number of supporting submissions received for a bill of rights.  He says that in the ACT, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia a majority of these were in favour of a bill of rights.Fifty per cent of the written submissions were in favour of a WA Human Rights Act and only 34 per cent were opposed. In Tasmania, 94 per cent of submissions supported a charter of rights.

This is hardly surprising; it is reasonable to assume these will tend to be people (mainly lawyers according to the New South Wales Solicitor General, Michael Sexton ), who have been campaigning for a bill of rights.

The second consideration is that such laws were enacted in Victoria and the ACT “without any strong, broad-based community opposition.”

 My recollection is that there was in fact strong opposition from religious groups, including strong opposition by Catholics, at least as to some aspects of the legislation in Victoria.

Many complained about the failure of the legislation to protect the human rights of Christian doctors and nurses who wished to observe Christian teaching on the right to life of the unborn.

It is curious then that a Jesuit priest does not see opposition led from within the country’s largest church – his – as strong and broad-based.

I must say I have never seen support measured this way before.The Brennan indicia for support for some proposal can thus be seen to be both positive and negative.

The positive seem to be based on the number of favorable submissions, and the negative on whether there is strong, broad based community opposition, which apparently does not include opposition from those who believe they will not be allowed to follow Christian teaching.

Whatever one thinks of abortion, a matter not within the ACM charter, it is relevant to note the law was effectively changed in Australia by judicial decisions by inferior courts which made the law unenforceable. This activism no doubt affected community attitudes over time.

In addition there is a third factor which Father Brennan relies on in measuring community attitudes. This is not  novel as the other two are – it is the ubiquitous  opinion poll.  

Surprisingly,  Father Brennan cites only one. This  “… revealed that 89 per cent of respondents believed that WA should have a law that aims to protect the human rights of people .”

On what I assume was the question, I am surprised that was not 100%.

Were the respondents told about the common law and a statute book bulging with legislation protecting human rights? I suspect not.

We can see Father Brenna becoming a favourite appointment to such consultations to measure community support. 

If Father Brennan’s indicia for the measurement of public support are widely held among the republic establishment, the discouragement of submissions in relation to Senator Brown’s republican plebiscite is perfectly understandable.

…contesting Father Brennan's views…

 Incidentally, two  letters published in The Australian on 23 December,2008 sought to answer Father Brennan.John McCarthy of Pearce, in the ACT writes:

“It’s really Jesuitical for Father Frank Brennan to  say that we know that ‘a majority of the community who come forward and express views about a bill of rights’ favour some change . 

“Well they would, wouldn’t they, since this is their hobby horse, but in Victoria this ‘forward-coming majority’ represented only a minuscule portion of the general population in the lead up to a charter of rights being foisted on them. It was a classic case of a so-called consultation on a dull-sounding, esoteric issue being used by ideologically motivated interests to slip in a legislative change with far-reaching and anti-democratic consequences. Weasel words about preserving the sovereignty of parliament and not constitutionally entrenching a bill of rights are meaningless if the judiciary can effectively over-ride representative government.

 “If the Brennan committee decides to dismiss the ‘do nothing’ option and recommends what is effectively a charter or bill of rights, the only way it will avoid the charge of casuistry in reaching a pre-determined conclusion will be for it to also demand that its recommendation be put to a referendum. That way we would certainly know if there really is any strong, broad-based community support for such a change.”

..a referendum … the only way to avoid a charge of casuistry…


And Paul Williams of Mt Barker, SA writes:

“While I am relieved to read that a bill of rights is not a foregone conclusion of the National Human Rights Consultation Committee’s investigation, the third question it’s being asked to consult the community on—‘How could Australia better protect and promote human rights’—clearly cannot be acceptably answered by ‘do nothing’.

 “‘Do nothing’ implies no change in our protection and promotion of human rights, and the inquiry is therefore inevitably slanted towards doing ‘something’, and that something is presumably a bill of rights.

 “Frank Brennan indicates that a large majority of public submissions favour passage of human rights legislation. My own polling is more grassroots than Father Frank’s, being solely from those who will be called upon to pay for whatever is decided upon.

"The overwhelming consensus of my polling is that equality before the law protects human rights just fine, and a bill of rights would likely be manipulated by opportunistic groups looking to rip off taxpayers.”     


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