Australia still struggles with concept of a fair go


Civil liberties have not progressed far in the past 225 years, writes Bruce Haigh.


Australia was founded as a penal colony by Britain 225 years ago. There were no expectations on the part of Britain that it would ever amount to much more. However, enterprise and greed, on the part of administrators, soldiers and released convicts saw commercial activity and farming gradually established; all at the expense of the original Aboriginal inhabitants who not unnaturally saw the move to permanent settlement as an invasion.


There was no concept of civil liberties relating to the Aborigines and the convicts. Industrialisation in Britain saw social upheaval within a class structured society; the acquisition of wealth was a means of moving upwards in the structure.

As the colonies began to prosper, some viewed migration to them as an easier way to gain wealth and status, others as the only way to escape poverty.

Wealth bestowed certain rights on the new elite in the Australian colonies, but that was the extent of civil liberties.


Some cite the gold rushes as bringing people, mainly men, to Australia with a more independent outlook and a notion of the ''rights of man''. They cite armed protest on the Victorian goldfields in December 1854, known as the Eureka Stockade, as proof of this and Republicans in Australia employ the symbolism of the event and the flag used by the protesters as a prop in their campaign.

However, the uprising, as it is romantically referred to, was a protest of frustration at the imposition of mining licence fees and police harassment involved with the collection of these fees.

White miners killed and injured Chinese miners, most seriously at Lambing Flat near Young in NSW but also on goldfields in Victoria. There was no notion of civil liberties relating to the persecuted Chinese, on the contrary fear over the loss of white jobs led to the White Australia Policy, in force from the 1880s to the 1960s.

Cheap labour was introduced to Queensland sugar fields from men forcibly abducted from the Pacific Islands in the 1880s. There was no protest from politicians, the public or the papers.

Civil liberties, as we know them today, came through the union movement, which found expression through a number of strikes at the end of the 1880s and early 1890s, including a general maritime and shearers strike. It was from the union movement that the Labor Party was formed. But both the movement and the party supported White Australia.

The Bulletin magazine fostered notions of nationalism and equality, the latter being driven by a desire for a better distribution of wealth.

Billy Hughes split the Labor Party and the nation with the debate over conscription for World War I, which he twice tried to introduce in 1916 and 1917. The attempt to introduce had nothing to do with the notion of civil liberty, although some argue that opposition did.

Contribution to the Great War did not contribute to civil liberties and the notion of mateship did not extend to giving Aborigines equal rights, including the vote. The Great Depression and the Australian response of working for the dole on made-up projects did not contribute to civil liberties.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies, in a deceitful sleight of hand, introduced conscription by ballot for service in Vietnam in 1964. That, together with Australian involvement in the war in Vietnam, once again tore the social fabric of Australia.

Free universal state-funded education in all states did, however, contribute substantially to civil liberties as did giving women the vote, although it did not and has still not contributed to equality in the workplace or indeed in some areas of Australian society.

Australia is nominally a secular society but religion has been allowed to dominate debate and the practice of equality for women in certain sectors of society and in certain religions including Catholicism and among some Muslims.

Aborigines have still not been empowered to take control of their own affairs. White paternalism dominates policy and debate within both the major parties. Not much in the way of civil liberties there.

Compared to 25 years ago Australia has gone backward in its treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Some have been imprisoned for two to three years. Howard government offshore processing has been reintroduced by Labor, which once prided itself on its human rights and civil liberties.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, acting to close off avenues of escape for persecuted Tamils from Sri Lanka has entered into the most unholy of alliances with the corrupt Rajapaksa regime to disrupt the boat traffic in asylum seekers. Perhaps we should not be surprised as this is the self-regarding politician who mounted strange arguments against an Australian Bill of Rights, for reasons difficult to understand.

Unless we can protect the weakest among us and those seeking our protection we cannot claim to be a state that has a strong notion of civil liberties.

The fact remains, however, that Australia does not have a bill of rights and while it does not transgressions against the fundamental rights of individuals are made easier than if such a bill were in existence; the lives of Assange, Habib, Hicks, Haneef and Zygier might have had different outcomes. Once informed an organisation like ASIO might be compelled to inform relevant agencies of the detention of an Australian irrespective of real or perceived security concerns.

To secure and maintain the civil liberties inherited under our adoption of the Westminster system of government and the basic tenets of English law, Australians must rely on the court system interpreting a tangled web of now often-contradictory laws that back our limited and fragile civil liberties.

  • Bruce Haigh is a political commentator.

Read more: