NSWCCL News

CCL calls for parliament to continue sitting during covid-19 crisis

March 30, 2020

PUBLIC STATEMENT

PROLONGED PARLIAMENTARY ADJOURNMENT UNACCEPTABLE AND DANGEROUS FOR DEMOCRACY

For the duration of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, NSWCCL calls upon the Commonwealth and NSW Governments to accord full respect to the principles of parliamentary supremacy and responsible and representative government, which are fundamental features of Australia’s democratic and constitutional arrangements.

To this end, we urge the State and Commonwealth Governments to act through parliamentary processes and to continue to exercise legislative powers to the fullest practicable extent for the duration of this crisis. We urge them to reconsider parliamentary adjournment until September[1] and August[2] respectively. The NSW Parliament should also update its committee processes to enable NSW parliamentary committees to operate virtually, similarly to the way committees at the Commonwealth level are able to operate.

Adherence to these principles will ensure that Australians continue to enjoy full democracy, accountability and transparency from their leaders, and therefore maximum protection of their civil liberties during these challenging times.

The consequence of these parliamentary shutdowns, in the words of constitutional law expert Anne Twomey from the University of Sydney, is that there will be very little parliamentary scrutiny of the government for nearly five months, a critical period during which extreme powers may be exercised.[3]

The emergency circumstances in which we find ourselves render it difficult to overstate the potential for the dramatic overreach of unreviewable executive power. Decisions of the High Court since 2009 make this problem even more serious.[4]

This is not merely an academic point. Limiting the power of the executive to act without parliamentary scrutiny – that is, without the scrutiny of ‘the people’ – can seriously endanger our civil liberties. As Chief Justice Owen Dixon once wrote, “history and not only ancient history, shows that in countries where democratic institutions have been unconstitutionally superseded, it has been done not seldom by those holding the executive power. Forms of government may need protection from dangers likely to arise from within the institutions to be protected.”[5] Government must be responsible and be held responsible to the people through the people’s house insofar as possible.

Arguments to the effect that the country does not need ‘political infighting’ during a crisis should be rejected as a justification for closing down Parliament.  Parliament can sit without descending into a circus, and there has been a high degree of bipartisanship throughout the crisis so far as evidenced by the sittings on 23 March 2020. Those concerned about the legality of virtual sittings of the Commonwealth Parliament should be comforted by research showing that there are no serious legal barriers to this solution.[6]

Even the darkest days of the World Wars did not force Parliament to close for extended periods. NSWCCL believes Australia needs more democracy and accountability in these difficult months, not less.

 

Nicholas Cowdery AO QC

President, NSW Council for Civil Liberties

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  PDF copy of statement 

 

Contact: Jared Wilk Convenor, Civil Liberties and Human Rights Group

Email: office@nswccl.org.au

Sent to:
Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Attorney General Christian Porter, Leader of the House
Leader Opposition Anthony Albanese
Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus
President of the Senate Scott Ryan
Leader of the Government in the Senate Mathias Cormann
Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Penny Wong
Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives Tony Bourke
Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate Katy Gallagher
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian
NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman
NSW Leader of the Opposition Jodi McKay

Copies to: All Federal MPs/Senators, all NSW MPs/MLCs


[1] https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/breaking-news/nsw-parliament-works-to-pass-virus-bills/news-story/b5aa536f2dcef0abd32d946a3a5217b6

[2] https://www.sbs.com.au/news/federal-parliament-to-shut-until-august-as-coronavirus-causes-revised-schedule

[3] https://theconversation.com/a-virtual-australian-parliament-is-possible-and-may-be-needed-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic-134540

[4] See e.g. Pape v Commissioner of Taxation (2009) 238 CLR 1.

[5] Communist Party Case (1951) 83 CLR 1 [87].

[6] https://theconversation.com/a-virtual-australian-parliament-is-possible-and-may-be-needed-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic-134540

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Review: National Inquiry into Sexual Assault in Australian Workplaces

RESPECT@WORK: NATIONAL INQUIRY INTO SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN AUSTRALIAN WORKPLACES

In the past 5 years, 1 in 3 people has experienced sexual harassment at work. The 2018 National Survey highlighted that 2 in 5 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced this situation. Moreover, 53% of the victims are Aboriginals.

In June 2018, against the backdrop of the momentum of the #MeToo movement and recognition of the prevalence of, and immense harm caused by sexual harassment in Australian, and global, workplaces, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, and the then Minister for Women, the Hon Kelly O’Dwyer, announced the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces (Inquiry).

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NSWCCL calls for sunset clauses and strict oversight on COVID-19 powers

Media coverage: The Weekend Australian

NSW Council for Civil Liberties spokesman Stephen Blanks says any extraordinary powers used by health officials to curb the COVID-19 contagion must be subject to 'clear, short sunset clauses'.

"These tracking powers have been effective in other countries,” Blanks told The Weekend Australian. “This is an extreme situation. “I think it’s appropriate for this data to be used, provided it’s used only for this purpose and subject to strict oversight.”

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NSWCCL calls for clarity around policing and COVID-19 restrictions

Media coverage: SBS News

"Police should be trying to promote understanding of the new regulations and new restrictions and doing everything they can to get voluntary compliance," spokesperson for the NSW Council for Civil Liberties Stephen Blanks told SBS News.

"It shouldn't be a revenue-raising exercise for the government," Mr Blanks said.

"And it's so important that when restrictions are imposed, that proper notice is given to a community, that restrictions are clearly available on government websites. So people can see what it is that they are allowed and not allowed to do."

But he said in this instance, officials "have been struggling to achieve clarity".

"This confusion makes it hard for members of the public to know what they are allowed to do," he said.

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Asylum Seekers and Refugees must be considered in COVID-19 responses

Asylum Seekers and Refugees must be considered in the response to the Covid 19 Emergency.

The NSWCCL has grave concerns for the health and safety of those held in immigration detention centres on the Australian mainland. Media reports have described conditions in the Villawood Detention Centre of up to 200 detainees in close contact during mealtimes and the cramped conditions in the Mantra hotel in Brisbane which is being used as an Alternate Place of Detention (APOD).

We are also concerned for those who are in the community and may be left without access to Medicare and Centrelink. The Federal Government has extended the range of people who can access Centrelink payments with the aim of providing money for those who need it however, as explained by Paul Power from the Refugee Council of Australia, “This thinking should be extended to everyone in the country who is in need, particularly those who have no access to any form of safety net or to Medicare because of their visa status.”

We ask our members and supporters to act upon these concerns by letting their Federal Members of Parliament know of their concerns. More information and a prepared letter are on the Refugee Council of Australia website.

 

Dr Martin Bibby and Angela Catallo, co-convenors, Asylum Seekers an Refugees Action Group

 

 

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Statement: Strong Leadership by AG on parole, steps needed for remand population

March 27, 2020

Copies to:
NSW Attorney General, Mark Speakman SC
Anthony Roberts MP, Minister for Counter Terrorism and Corrections
Peter Severin, Commissioner, Corrective Services NSW
Gary Forrest CEO Justice Health

 

PUBLIC STATEMENT

The NSWCCL has written to the NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman SC to acknowledge the strong leadership shown by taking swift and decisive action to amend the Crimes (Administration of Sentences) Act 1999 to create a power for early release to conditional parole in some circumstances. If this power is exercised to substantially reduce the number of people held in detention in NSW, this will be a significant step towards slowing the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives.

We urge the Attorney General to also consider relieving the strain on prisons and consequential health risks caused by the burden of overcrowding by amending the Bail Act 2013. In 2013 the Audit Office of NSW identified that 33% of the NSW prison population were on remand. This proportion of the prison population can only be reduced through release by police or courts under the Bail Act.

The current bail framework can be applied to reduce the numbers. In particular the court can take into account the delays which will be experienced in finalising cases as a result of the impact of the pandemic and also vulnerabilities of the accused, for example their age, pre-existing conditions or if they are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person.

However, the Bail Act does not currently provide for the impact of the spread of the virus within the prison system on the community or other people detained or working or attending correctional or detention centres. An express provision in the Bail Act which provides that the court must take into account the risks posed by COVID-19 to inmates, correctional staff and other gaol workers, their families and the community more broadly, would send a clear message to police and the courts that Parliament acknowledges the serious and fatal risks posed by a spread of this virus.

 

Nicholas Cowdery AO QC

President, NSW Council for Civil Liberties

  

Rebecca McMahon & Eugene Schofield-Georgeson

Convenors, Criminal Justice Action Group

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Media statement: NSW emergency legislation COVID-19

March 24, 2020

MEDIA RELEASE

COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020 doesn’t do enough to protect human rights

The NSW government has now passed the COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020. The NSW Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) appreciates the government’s rapid response in introducing emergency public health measures, at this time. The government has a broad range of public health and emergency response powers available under current legislation, for responding to public health emergencies. Although some elements of individual liberty and equity may be overridden to protect the wider community, when exercising those powers, the government must remain vigilant to avoid the grave human rights violations likely to affect the most vulnerable in our society. Those vulnerable include those who are unable, because of disability; poverty; their migrant status; or incarceration, to access emergency economic or health services. If unprecedented numbers of job losses ensue, as predicted, then the number of vulnerable in our society will swell.

It is for these reasons that the NSWCCL wishes to highlight a number of disturbing aspects of and omissions from the Bill:

  1. Pre-recorded evidence in criminal trials does not give the opportunity for the defence to cross-examine the prosecution witness which is an essential component of criminal justice process. While acceptable, in some limited specific special circumstances, this provides for a much broader range of witnesses, if the class of persons is revised by regulation.
  2. Evidence given from a remote location, by video link, would provide the same protections, in terms of disease, but would have the benefit of allowing cross-examination. If it is considered that this cannot be achieved, due to a lack of resources, that is not a sufficient reason, where the integrity of the justice system in achieving fair trials is at risk.
  3. The possibility of a 12 month, or longer period, for the emergency measures to be determined by the Attorney-General, is not satisfactory.  There should a be a firm sunset date, so that parliamentary approval is required, for any extension.
  4. The Bill invokes powers, in s747B of the Local Government Act, that allow legislation to be amended or repealed without going back to Parliament for consideration. Although emergency situations may be a valid exception to the principle, the NSWCCL generally opposes these as they produce less scrutiny and Parliamentary control over legislation. This is not considered a necessary measure in these circumstances.
  5. The Bill should include strong whistleblower protection for health workers. In a health crisis of this kind, it is more important, than ever, to ensure that the public can have access to accurate information, in a timely way. Health workers are obviously in a position where they will often be first to know, and they should be protected from persecution, and prosecution, if they genuinely see a need for public disclosure of information.

Finally, NSWCCL has released a statement specifically addressing COVID-19 and prisons which can be accessed at the following link https://www.nswccl.org.au/statement_covid_19_and_prisons

 

ENDS


PDF version

NSWCCL contact: office@nswccl.com.au or Michelle Falstein 0412 980 540

About NSW Council for Civil Liberties

NSWCCL is one of Australia’s leading human rights and civil liberties organisations, founded in 1963. We are a non-political, non-religious and non-sectarian organisation that champions the rights of all to express their views and beliefs without suppression. We also listen to individual complaints and, through volunteer efforts; attempt to help members of the public with civil liberties problems. We prepare submissions to government, conduct court cases defending infringements of civil liberties, engage regularly in public debates, produce publications, and conduct many other activities.

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NSWCCL: Overcrowded detention centres are ripe for the spread of infectious diseases

Media coverage: 9 News

Staff at a detention centre in NSW are ignoring fears cramped conditions will aid the spread of coronavirus, detainees and advocates say. 

Issa Andrwas, a detainee at Sydney's Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, says social distancing rules are not being enforced by the home affairs department. "We are not supposed to be gathered together but two or three people are sleeping in one room," Mr Adrwas told AAP from inside Villawood.

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties says overcrowded detention centres are ripe for the spread of infectious diseases.

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Statement: COVID-19 and prisons

March 24, 2020

PUBLIC STATEMENT

Reducing the risk of COVID-19: reducing the number of people in custody 

The risk of transmission of COVID-19 in correctional centres and youth detention centres demands urgent action to reduce the number of people in those centres.

The NSWCCL strongly supports the ‘Open letter to Australian governments on COVID-19 and the criminal justice system’ https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-20/open-letter-to-australian-governments-on-covid-19-and-the-crimi/12076342.

Overcrowding of gaols is a well-known condition which renders the prison population more vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases. Many people in custody present with pre-existing and chronic health conditions which may increase the risk to their health if infected with COVID-19. 

We are deeply concerned that failing to significantly reduce prison numbers will lead to a rapid spread of the infection which would unacceptably compromise the health and safety of inmates, young people and the families and communities to whom they are released. This is particularly concerning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and who suffer poorer health outcomes. We are also concerned for the health and safety of corrections and justice health staff, lawyers, cleaners other gaol workers and the families and communities they go home to.

The risk of infection will inevitably be exacerbated by the significant delays in finalising cases which will result from important measures being put in place by the courts to limit face-to-face contact of court users, such as the suspension of jury trials. On 23 March 2020 a restriction was placed on new criminal cases commencing in the NSW District Court (other than sentences and appeals) and directed that trials currently listed be vacated and be re-listed after October 2020 (with the exception of Judge alone trials and current trials). The Supreme Court announced that from Tuesday, 24 March 2020 ‘there shall be no personal appearances in any matters save in exceptional circumstances’ 

Reducing prison numbers can be done by:

  • Urgently considering legislation to enable early release of prisoners who are not considered high risk or who are soon to be released as has been done in some other countries
  • Amending the Bail Act and the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act to require courts (and police in relation to bail) to take into account the potential impact of COVID-19 upon the accused and the community.
  • Police and the courts taking into account the impact of COVID-19 upon the accused in the context of the current bail framework, including the accused’s potential risk of exposure, the length of time in custody (including the impact of the delays), the vulnerability of the person and the likelihood of a custodial penalty (which may more appropriately be a community based option if the person is vulnerable to infection by virtue of their incarceration or the person has a vulnerability which increases the risk to their health).

We urge that courts refrain from imposing sentences of full-time custody unless assurances are provided by corrective services that:

  • the offender will not be forced to share cells or spaces which are inconsistent with the government guidelines in relation to distancing; and
  • that offenders will not be exposed to persons who corrective services are aware may be infected or at risk of carrying the virus.

 

Transparency and Accountability 

The information currently available on NSW Corrective Services and NSW Justice Health websites is inadequate. Inmates, young people in detention, their families, the public, the legal profession and the courts are entitled to know essential information and policies including:

  • In what circumstances are inmates and young people being tested for COVID-19?
  • In what circumstances are staff being tested for COVID-19?
  • What arrangements are being made in relation to vulnerable members of the prison population: the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
  • What are the arrangements for isolating any inmates who test positive for COVID-19, including the length of time they are to be isolated and in what conditions?
  • How are accused persons who are arriving from overseas (such as those who may have been arrested for importing drugs) being isolated?
  • the impact on inmates who share a wing, pod or gaol with an inmate who tests positive for COVID-19 and what arrangements or changes will occur to the conditions of their incarceration?
  • the number of beds at Long Bay hospital that are available for treating any inmate or young person testing positive who requires hospital care;
  • what alternative arrangements would be available if Long Bay hospital reached capacity?
  • the arrangements, if any, for any inmates who are released in relation to testing and, if positive, whether inmates are provided transport and transmission to appropriate health services?
  • the availability or cancellation of rehabilitation programs as a result of the risk posed by COVID-19.

We urge NSW Corrective Services and NSW Justice Health to publish this information on their websites to ensure accuracy. 

As at 22 March 2020, NSW Corrective Services’ website indicated that “We have no confirmed cases of the virus within any of our correctional centres”. On 20 March 2020, The Sydney Morning Herald reported “two staff members at a high-security mental health facility in Sydney's south have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and dozens of staff and patients have been placed into isolation”. We urge NSW Corrective Services and NSW Justice Health to publish accurate information on their websites. It is understood that the forensic hospital is under the jurisdiction of NSW Justice Health, however, sections 55 and 56 of the Mental Health (Forensic Provisions) Act provide for transfer of persons between the hospital and correctional centres. For this reason, we urge disclosure on the NSW Corrective Services website. It should also be made clear whether there has been any potential transmission by Justice Health staff spending time in either the hospital or a correctional centre or whether any forensic patients have been transferred to correctional centres within the relevant time period. 

Unprecedented times require the courage to make decisions which are consistent with evidence and the wellbeing of the whole community. We call on the government to urgently reduce the number of people incarcerated to lessen public health risks. We call on NSW Corrective Services and NSW Justice Health to provide clear and detailed information to the public.   

 

Nicholas Cowdery AO QC

President, NSW Council for Civil Liberties

 

Rebecca McMahon & Eugene Schofield-Georgeson

Convenors, Criminal Justice Action Group

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The pursuit of assange - politically motivated and unjust

NSWCCL recently joined other organisations and individuals in reaffirming our support for Julian Assange in the context of his fight against extradition to the USA. We spoke at the Assange rally in Sydney in February and subsequently sent a public letter to the Prime Minister urging the Australian Government to take effective action to support Assange in his fight against extradition and assist his return to Australia.

Assange’s situation is desperate and dangerous. His mental and physical health have been seriously compromised. He is imprisoned in a London gaol with limited capacity to communicate with his legal team. If he is extradited to the USA, he will face charges which will expose him to a likely outcome of life imprisonment in a high security gaol.

The relentless pursuit of Julian Assange over the last decade has been politically motivated, cruel and unjustifiable.  In our view he has not engaged in criminal activity. Assange and wikileaks published truthful information about shocking and wrongful activities - including war crimes - which had been kept secret. 

The public had an unquestionable right to know about these actions done in their name. Their publication constituted public interest journalism for which NSWCCL will continue to defend Assange.   

Wider implications

The implications of this pursuit of Assange go well beyond his personal fate. The determination of the USA to capture and severely punish Assange is a politically motivated enterprise aimed not only at him, but at warning off future whistle-blowers and journalists who might contemplate exposing secret US Government information in the public interest.

The calculated decision to charge Assange under the US Espionage Act 1917 is particularly disturbing.  If Assange is successfully prosecuted for these offences, it will have global implications for journalists and the free press and will challenge the strength of protection provided to journalists by the First Amendment’s prohibition of any US law ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’.

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