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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rights and freedoms in Australia

There's still a lot of time for you to make a submission to the National Human Rights Consultation Committee about rights and freedoms in Australia. The last date for submissions is not until 29 May 2009. All the same, I plan to submit my submission far earlier than that.

I now have a pretty good first draft - still a bit messy on the screen, but basically there. This version weighs in at 47,000 words. I want to do a bit more research around the edges, which will maybe take me a couple of weeks, but it probably won't lead to huge changes, so I'm guessing the final version will be 50,000 words long.

How much notice will be taken of my views? Who knows? I'm not all that optimistic, but am using the exercise partly as a way to straighten out a lot of my thinking on these issues, and to get it all in one place ... irrespective of what effect it will have on the Committee's deliberations. Still, if I were on such a body I would be taking notice of any detailed submission that is thoroughly backed up with case citations, bibliography, etc., as well as addressing many controversial issues, from the treatment of David Hicks to the treatment of Bill Henson. I also have some positive recommendations to make, although (let's face it) these obviously won't carry the same sort of weight as recommendations from, say, the Attorney-General's Department or from major lobby groups.

Still, this is a chance for all of us to have our say on what rights and freedoms matter to us, and on how they might be protected. As I see it, no thinking Australian should pass up the opportunity to say at least something about these important issues - whether or not you happen to agree with my (arguably eccentric) views.

If you are sufficiently interested, and if I know you well enough, I can send you a copy of my developing draft. That would give you something to work with, even if you totally disagree with me on every issue! I am arguing throughout for a Millian liberal position, as you might expect; I think that the state should expand our area of freedom essentially by getting out of a lot of areas where it enacts penal legislation. However, there's a lot more than that to what I want to say.

Much of my argument is about the real dangers of populist politics: why governments find it all too tempting to demonise individuals or groups who are out of the mainstream, whether we're talking about asylum seekers or individuals such as Henson who are privileged in many ways but easy to denounce as "pseuds" (or worse). Democratic elections provide some check on the draconian use of government power, but not so much if the government is pandering to mainstream fears and prejudices.

In those circumstances, there's often bipartisan support for illiberal policies and dangerous laws. Differences among the major parties are then likely to be matters of detail and emphasis. But the question is, "What can be done about it?"

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