PM calls for debate on death penalty
(Melbourne, 8 August 2003) In the wake of the sentencing
of convicted Bali bomber Amrozi, the Australian Prime
Minister has called for a national debate on the re-introduction
of the death penalty. Reiterating that he does not personally
support the death penalty, Mr Howard suggested that the
death penalty “could be raised by state opposition
parties as an election issue” (Sydney
Morning Herald 9/8/03).
The PM could protect us from the death penalty
By floating the idea that State Liberal opposition parties use
the death penalty as a re-election policy (SMH 9/8/03), Prime
Minister Howard has signalled a dangerous attack on our civil
liberties and the most fundamental of our human rights: the right
Mr Howard is correct to say that he does not have the
power to impose the death penalty in a State such as Victoria.
But what he fails to mention is that he does have the
power to stop any State or Territory from re-introducing
the death penalty.
In 1991, Australia acceded to the Second Optional
Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (‘OP2’). OP2 commits Australia
to abolishing the death penalty. So the re-introduction
of the death penalty in any State or Territory would violate
international law and further tarnish our international
Since 1983, the High Court of Australia has consistently
held that the Federal Parliament can override States to
uphold our international obligations. In 1983 that power
was used to protect the Franklin River in Tasmania. In
the 1990s Paul Keating used this power to override anti-gay
laws in Tasmania. If Mr Howard is willing, this same power
can be used again to protect all Australians from the
re-introduction of the death penalty by the States or
In fact, Mr Howard does not even have to wait for the
States or Territories to make the first move. The Federal
Parliament already possesses all the necessary constitutional
powers to pass legislation incorporating into Australian
law the protections offered by OP2.
The Prime Minister is correct to say that the law can
get it wrong – just ask Lindy Chamberlain or WA’s
John Button. And the NSW Premier is correct to say that,
when it comes to the death penalty, a mistake is irreversible.
The PM has the power to protect all Australians from the
irreversible errors of law that will, on his own admission,
inevitably result from a re-introduction of the death
penalty in Australia.
If Mr Howard really believes that the death penalty is
wrong, then he should act now to prevent its re-introduction
and to protect the civil liberties of all Australians.
Michael Walton & David
UNSW Council for Civil Liberties
UNSWCCL can be contacted by email