What happened to the Rule of Law?

Last year many countries commemorated 800 years of the Magna Carta.  A deed that enshrined the Rule of Law’s protection of individuals against the power and resources of the state.  Less than 12 months later our television screens show horrific images of Australian children in a Northern Territory detention facility.

It is frightening whenever this important doctrine is eroded without fair minded Australians even noticing.  It takes the shocking images of children being locked in bare cement cells, sprayed with tear gas, and being tied down and hooded before we are moved to act.

At least, finally, we have been moved to act and a Royal Commission has been called into the way the Northern Territory deals with juvenile justice.

Australians should act whenever we see the Rule of Law threatened.  It may not always arouse the intense reaction that the images of those children did but we must act; we must step up.  Like when elected representatives  advocate discriminating against the most vulnerable seeking asylum based solely on their faith.  We should speak up, advocating the fundamental protections that are enshrined in the Rule of Law.

Last year our political leaders reminded us that the Rule of Law is the bedrock for doctrines such as:

  • the right to access to justice;

  • proportionality in sentencing;

  • the presumption of innocence;

  • procedural fairness;

  • the appointment of expert impartial judges; and

  • applying laws equally to all.

These are all principles that most modern day Australians believe in, irrespective of our age or religion or culture.  The fundamental focus of the Rule of Law has been to protect individuals against the excesses of the state.

The now world-famous images of children in the Don Dale Youth Corrections Centre in Darwin raise many questions about whether the Rule of Law was upheld by those whose duty it was to protect the vulnerable.  Questions like:  whether, given the form of punishment received by those children, there was proportionality in their sentencing; whether the children were provided with access to justice, especially when it appears from the Four Corners program that they were placed in isolation units for weeks at a time and then placed in an adult prison.  These questions will no doubt be properly addressed as part of the White-Gooda Royal Commission. 

If the Rule of Law has been eroded, the blame must be shared by all of us for not being vigilant enough to protect this important doctrine.   When the Rule of Law does not hold true the protections it offers individuals are diminished.  Eventually the protections and freedoms envisaged 800 years ago will only be a footnote in history.

We must do what we can to shore up the Rule of Law.  We must ensure that individual rights are protected: the rights of children and adults; the rights of those born in Australia and those born in other countries; the rights of Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths, and of those without faith.  All individuals in Australia need to rely on this fundamental principle protecting and informing their rights.

It is incumbent on all citizens to protect the voiceless and the vulnerable.  However, politicians have a particular duty to advocate protecting such groups.  No sane politician should be party to any watering down of the Rule of Law.

While I commend Prime Minister Turnbull for instigating the Royal Commission into Northern Territory juvenile detention, other elements in his Government are further undoing the protections we hold dear. There is no excuse for any politician to promote discrimination against minorities.  The recent comments of Senator Eric Abetz supporting the call by ACT President of the Young Liberals, Josh Manuatu, to refuse Muslim immigrants is nothing more than simple Islamophobia.  These comments are disgraceful and completely un-Australian.  If allowed to continue unabated, such irresponsible rhetoric by senior members of the Liberal Party will further erode the Rule of Law.

It is time for the Prime Minister to speak up and rein in his misguided and divisive colleagues.  If he can’t strongly guide his colleagues, how will he ever navigate his way through his new Senate?

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