NSWCCL held its annual dinner last Friday night to celebrate 54 years of civil liberties advocacy and to raise funds for its ongoing work. Around 260 members and supporters were present to celebrate and to hear speeches from two luminaries of the Australian legal fraternity – the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG and Bret Walker SC.
The gathering was, as usual, a fabulously diverse one including civil libertarian and human rights supporters from many walks of life and activists and advocates deeply engaged in current related causes.
There was a stronger legal contingent than usual, including a goodly number of current or past judges of the High Court, and the Federal and Supreme courts and senior counsels, the President of the NSW Law Society and senior members of the NSW Bar Association - presumably drawn by the stellar legal profile of the speakers.
There were also leading trade unionists, politicians past and present, senior bureaucrats, teachers and academics, journalists and numbers of community and human rights groups.
Most significantly – the gathering included a large number of students and younger civil libertarian supporters. This is heartening for obvious reasons – and, in so far as it reflects the presence and growing influence of younger civil libertarians on the CCL Committee and Executive – it foreshadows a transition already underway in the focus of CCL to civil liberties issues of concern to young people and new approaches to advocacy.
The highlight of the evening was of course the speeches.
The President's message
CCL President Stephen Blanks recalled some of the major issues facing Australians in the past year which had ‘struck deep civil liberties chords’. These encompassed counter-terrorism, indigenous recognition, human rights abuses on Nauru and Manus Island and with NT youth detention, prospective detention / administrative detention, citizenship qualifications for Australian parliament, privacy and government mass surveillance.
Stephen warned that each of these issues ‘eats away at our democracy and makes it more fragile’.
Among the few wins of the past year he flagged the recent striking down by the High Court of the Tasmanian anti Protest Laws and the huge public affirmation of marriage equality – and the now likely passage of the Victorian euthanasia legislation.
For the future, Stephen suggested the forthcoming debate around the passage of the marriage equality legislation might provide some opportunity for a renewed focus on general human rights legislation – if, that is, we can counteract the push for religious-specific protections with the dangerous possibility of unwinding current anti-discrimination protections in Australia. We will also explore the implications of the High Court decision on the Tasmanian protest laws for a challenge to the appalling anti- protest and 'public safety' laws introduced in NSW this year.
Michael Kirby on Walker and NSWCCL
Michael Kirby introduced Bret Walker with much high praise as to his many leadership roles, achievements and extraordinary capacities and alerted anyone who did not know, that they were about to hear from a very special luminary of the legal profession.
Michael himself has more awards and achievements than can ever be summarised at any event (as was illustrated when the MC tried to do so in introducing him on Friday). Of special significance to us, is that he joined NSWCCL in its very early days and from the time he was a young lawyer in the 1960s he provided legal assistance in civil liberties cases. On his retirement from the High Court he accepted an honorary life membership of NSWCCL.
It was therefore no surprise that Michael also recounted some CCL history for the audience- pointing out for example that Neville Wran’s decision to decriminalise male homosexual acts in the 1980s was spurred by a hostile reaction of the audience at a CCL dinner. Noting the number of barristers in the audience, he also gave a stern recruiting spiel on behalf of CCL – his argument being that, as demonstrated by CCLs history, it is ‘no bad thing’ for the Justice system for barristers who may become judges to have been engaged in the NSW CCL.
We hope that this exhortation bears much fruit.
‘The People are not the Instrument’ or ‘Peter Dutton is not Immanuel Kant’
The NSWCCL dinner has been the site for many great – and some highly dramatic - speeches over its 50 plus years, but few have been as riveting as the speech delivered by Bret Walker SC on Friday evening.
In 25 lucid minutes Bret established from first principles the ethical and moral bankruptcy, and the ultimate irrationality, of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. He began by recounting in some detail two historical cases of great crimes against humanity and the response of the political and justice systems to these. From these he segued into a powerful critique of our policies and laws from the basic Kantian principle that every ‘man’ is an end in himself and should never be used as a means to an end or used as an instrument to be exploited.
His underlying question was ‘how is it that Australia has come to this?’ The ‘this’ was the barefaced and revolting instrumentalism’ of our refugee policy and the ‘intellectual and moral bankruptcy of those who designed the scheme’.
He concluded with some thoughts as to what we can do about this parlous situation when both major political parties and the parliament continue to support it. Bret’s bottom line was to use one weapon we do have in a democracy:
‘We have the vote’. Ask the candidates why is it that it’s thought proper for a civilised nation to use other people as instruments’….’How can you seriously say that it is the right thing to make asylum seekers and refugees suffer so as to stop the boats’.
‘We should not be stopping the boats, we should be sending them- that is the human approach.’
It was an intellectually demanding speech. It was a powerful and clear speech. More than one person declared it the best speech they have ever heard at a CCL dinner.
The sad thing is that as much as one would like to send it to Peter Dutton it would be a useless exercise as he would neither comprehend nor appreciate it.
In addition to stirring speeches the 2017 dinner was the most successful CCL fundraising event in recent memory… for which we are very grateful.
The thank yous
Thanks to our Secretary Therese Cochrane for her overall management of the event, to the students and other volunteers on the evening and to our office coordinator Kiana Lussier and to the President of the NSW Law Society (and a VP of CCL) Pauline Wright for taking on the MC role.
NSWCCL thanks COJO Productions for once again donating their professional services to film the dinner proceedings and edit for publication on our website.