New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties: A Brief History

by Scott and Dot Campbell

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties (CCL), established in the closing months of 1963, came into being in response to a police raid on a Kings Cross party, a raid without a warrant and carried out for no good reason. In so doing the police unwittingly sowed the seeds of an organisation committed to combat the abuse of power by authorities over the individual – an independent watchdog, nipping at the heels of government authorities. It quickly became an organisation whose activities spread well beyond protest against police behaviour to almost all aspects of bureaucratic, legal and legislative practices that affect the civil liberties of citizens. As Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court – once an active lawyer in the CCL – once said, “councils for civil liberties must never become parts of the establishment. Their role is to challenge, to criticise and to help reform.”

The fledgling organisation rapidly expanded its interests to matters relating to invasions of privacy, censorship and to a whole range of individual freedoms which were seen to be under threat. It was, for example, largely responsible for the changes in censorship in the early seventies by campaigning to gain entry for many books which were readily available in the UK, US and many other countries but which were denied entry into Australia. Sometimes the decision to censor was made by officials who had read only the title. The book Fun in Bed was banned, for example, even though a brief reading would have revealed it to be about entertaining sick children. Once a book had been printed in Australia, it was a different ball game, so the CCL arranged to have several books printed here and the dyke was broached. An era of  paternalistic and bureaucratic censorship effectively came to an end and while there were battles still to be fought they were on new terms. Film censorship was harder to fight and is ongoing but the CCL’s strong support for new film classifications in the seventies contributed greatly to today’s adults being able to see films they would not have been allowed to see even as late as the 1980s. Nevertheless, the war against censorship continues, particularly on the new fronts presented by the Internet.

The 60s and 70s were stirring times, dominated by demonstrations and protest. It was a time of reaction against the conformity that had characterised the previous post World War II decade. Vocal non-conformism among students, artists and writers, the emergence of sexual liberalisation with the production of the Pill; the vocal non-conformism of  “The Push”, and the feminist movement all troubled the establishment. Clashes were inevitable, and many people were attracted to an organisation which defended civil liberties.  The founders of the NSW CCL were socially aware lawyers, academics, the clergy and politicians with a common concern for the rights of individuals, their right to privacy and their right to freedom of expression, association and action. Prominent among the founders was Ken Buckley, Senior Lecturer in Economic History at the University of Sydney and outspoken academic radical.

Demonstrations against the Vietnam War and resistance to the conscription laws introduced by the Menzies and later governments prompted suppression, violence and wrongful arrests by police. A strong campaign was mounted by the CCL to condemn such actions and to defend the protesters in court. The Council made a point of not supporting the politics of the protesters and conscientious objectors but of defending their right to protest in a democratic society. It set up a network of observers to witness police actions and provide evidence in court hearings. The effect was immediate in a change in the behaviour of police and a growth in the profile and reputation of the CCL as a guardian of people’s rights. Recent clashes between protesters and police in Melbourne and law changes to permit the involvement of the military in civil disturbances indicate that the battle for the right to protest is not yet won.

The NSW CCL was not the first organisation in Australia with such a mission but it has been the most enduring by establishing and steadfastly maintaining a non-political, non-religious and  non-sectarian position on all issues, championing the right of all to express their views and beliefs without suppression. Since its beginnings the CCL has been prominent in advocating law reform and has supported  many causes. It advocates the introduction of a Bill of Rights to entrench human rights and liberties in the Australian Constitution; believes that the abuse of drugs is primarily a health problem and that public resources should reflect this policy. In particular the CCL believes that the use of '‘soft'’ drugs such as marijuana should be decriminalised; and believes that government responses to rising crime rates should not be harsher penalties, more gaols, surveillance and increased police powers while they ignore the real causes of crime. The NSW CCL has been prominent in championing the rights of prisoners, promoting feminist issues and the rights of children as well as demanding police accountability. The Council was in the vanguard of the campaign against the introduction of the Australia Card in the eighties and continues actively pushing for laws to protect individual privacy.

Probably the most successful early actions of the CCL were those relating to Aborigines. They were, at the time the CCL was formed – and still are – the most scrutinised, victimised and judged community in Australia, subject frequently to police persecution and vilification, principal victims of unjust and repressive laws. In the year 2000 indigenous people are the main victims of mandatory sentencing laws, and throughout the country are the dominant group in prisons despite their proportionally low population numbers. In the early 60s they had no voice, few possessions and limited voting rights. There was, therefore, good reason for the Council’s early interest in their welfare. Their defence of Ken Brindle in 1964 with a team of top lawyers was a landmark victory for the organisation. In that year a young Aboriginal man was shot by a railway detective on St Peter’s Station and died of his injury a few days later. Ken Brindle, an Aboriginal community leader, became involved when he sought an explanation of the shooting at Newtown police station. He ended up being called a “cheeky black bastard”, punched in the jaw and charged with using insulting words. With the help of  CCL lawyers acting on a voluntary basis, the case was dismissed and in a subsequent hearing when Brindle took action for assault against one of the policemen, he again won with CCL support – a shock for the police and a victory for the new champions of civil liberty.

As the Council’s reputation grew, it became more and more involved in assisting people whose civil liberties it considered were being disregarded, providing advice and often direct legal representation.  Most of these people fell foul of such repressive laws as the Vagrancy Act, the Summary Offences Act and the Crimes Act  - acts which the CCL believed disadvantaged the underprivileged, and which,  through its influence with politicians, the CCL sought to change – with some success. The CCL assumed an unofficial ombudsman role until such an office was established in each state and in the Commonwealth after much pressure on government from civil liberties and other organisations. The CCL soon made police and magistrates aware that if they abuse a person’s civil liberties, arrest and charge him/her for one of the many quasi-criminal offences in these acts, it is not a foregone conclusion that the matter will go undefended. The CCL’s function was something more than just the winning of a case.

The role of lawyers in the Council for Civil Liberties has always been of paramount importance and it has always sought to attract lawyers with a conscience, particularly those who had experienced the dishonesty of many police in court and who were prepared to assume a pro bono role on behalf of those unable to defend themselves. Well known solicitors and barristers defended many who had been wrongfully arrested by police. Prominent lawyers such as Michael Kirby, Jim Staples, Bob St John, Caroline Simpson and many others gave their talents freely to civil liberties cases. Many subsequently became judges – state and federal, and have contributed significantly to the legal scene.

The Council has had no position on partisan issues such as conscription, logging of forests and uranium mining but it strenuously and actively supports the rights of those who demonstrate against them. It has remained free from any party political affiliations, devoting all its energy to issues of civil liberties. Many civil liberties issues which were concerns of the sixties are still with us today. Racism, while less overt, is still apparent; government classification of what we see and read still exists and law and order issues are dominated by penalties and increased powers for the police.

In the years ahead the CCL will continue as a watchdog over legislature and the actions by authorities, particularly as technological developments facilitate crime control, affect youth street rights, but threaten our privacy and freedoms with electronic surveillance, phone taps and smart cards. These may all solve administrative problems or provide for efficient administration, but have the potential to tell others what we do, say and pay. Recent laws on DNA databanks and their use open up new issues for concern by civil libertarians. Access to justice remains largely the prerogative of the privileged as legal aid becomes less accessible, and government protection is being replaced by self-regulation. An efficient Council for Civil Liberties ensures the defence of people, especially underprivileged and minority groups, against the encroachments of bureaucracies exceeding their roles, breaching civil liberties on the way. It has a broad range of members who participate in many different ways, depending on their time, interests and skills. The broader its membership the greater its strength.