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REVIEW: Geoffrey Robertson’s ‘The Statute of Liberty’

REVIEW: Geoffrey Robertson’s ‘The Statute of Liberty’

The book is compusive reading for anyone interested in whether Australia should have a charter of rights, CLA President Dr Kristine Klugman writes. “Robertson succinctly outlines the rights of mankind through history…and puts the case for a statutory charter of rights” in Australia.

Review: The Statute of Liberty –  How Australians can take back their rights, Geoffrey Robertson, ISBN 978 1 74166 682 3 (pbk) Vintage/Random House Australia, 2009, 244p (online price: $16–$20)

I found this slim book absorbing, vividly and simply written, with touches of the sardonic Robertson humor.  It is also extremely current and timely, with the community consultation process on a charter of rights now under way in Australia.

Geoffrey Robertson is most widely known for his TV shows Hypotheticals, in which he delighted audiences by posing convoluted moral and legal dilemmas to a panel.  He is also one of the world’s leading human rights lawyers, an Australian but based in London where he heads his own barristers’ chambers.  “I have spent my professional life making arguments based on bills of rights.” (p16)

“The Human Rights bill in Britain has bought many advantages…It has exposed numerous gaps in the common law – especially for disadvantaged groups. The main beneficiaries, however, have been ordinary citizens, giving additional protection against unfair treatment.” (p12)

The Statute of Liberty puts the case for an Australian Charter of Rights.  Robertson succinctly outlines the rights of mankind through history, with a quick tour of ancient British history leading up to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  “It is ironic to think that Australia, a nation that would subsequently shrink from adopting a statute of human rights, first earned its international spurs by its stance – widely respected at the time – in favour of a binding charter and an international court of human rights.” (p34)

He then turns to Australian history and our convict past to our less-than-exemplary free speech guarantee: important reminders of history and liberty.

Chapter 5 puts the case for a statutory charter of rights: “An Australian charter will not merely lay down international standards, or improve the quality of our jurisprudence, or provide a modern method for courts to interpret parliament’s statutes and regulations.  It should define the freedoms which have an important place in the Australian story.  It should have a preamble that school children can recite with pride; its guarantees should be stated clearly and non-legalistically, in a language that every citizen (and every migrant) can understand; it should reflect universal standards, topped up by values that Australians, through their experience and their imagination, hold especially dear – values such as the importance of fairness, enterprise, equality, advancement on merit, and the moral imperative of paying our debt to Indigenous Australians.” (p92)

Chapter 6 outlines the British experience: “In 2008 the British Institute of Human Rights released a study of the first ten years of the Human Rights Act.  Once again, it demonstrated that the act’s main use was in protecting vulnerable people from abuse and from poor treatment by public services.  It reported that the act has become ‘an invaluable tool for public service staff, service users and their advocates, enabling people to challenge poor treatment without having to go to court, because it requires public services to consider people’s basic rights in their everyday work, and respond to individual needs’.“ (p138)

Robertson takes on one of the main arguments of critics – a shift of power from elected politicians to judges: “… democracy since its inception has relied on judges (‘unelected’ precisely so they can be independent of party politics) to protect the rights of citizens against governments that abuse power.” (p8)

“It is a minor irony of the current debate that MPs who scoff at a bill of rights, or call it undemocratic, fail to recognise that they owe their parliamentary privilege of free speech precisely to the bill of rights of 1689.” (p23)

Robertson takes particular pleasure in ridiculing and refuting former NSW Premier Bob Carr’s arguments, and the federal liberal party’s position based on them, which he says shows “astonishing historical ignorance”. (p161)

The other criticism most frequently made is that the charter would provide a bonanza for lawyers.  Robinson points out that the lawyers concerned with human rights – and therefore likely to be the ones to bring charter cases – work in public interest law centres, community law offices, legal aid or Aboriginal legal services, in trade union or NGO offices.  These lawyers are on modest salaries. A recent report showed salaries for lawyers in community centres are about 60% of the salaries of lawyers in the public service, and are the equivalent of the pay of a cadet journalist.

In chapter 8, Robertson outlines the provisions and clauses of a Statute of Liberty – the work is all done!! He does preface it with the comment: “I hope readers will themselves critique my wet-Sunday-afternoon effort.” (p181)

In the Epilogue, from the experience of the UK Act, and from examples in Australia, Robertson tells of  “stupid, pointless and unthinking humiliation” of people by bureaucrats”.(p223)  He states in summary: “Civil liberties are not privileges granted at the discretion of the powerful, they are rights capable of assertion by members of the public. That’s why a charter is a statute of liberty, because it takes a small amount of power back from the government and the MPs and the public service, and restores it to the people who, in any democracy, are entitled to it, and, in any advanced democracy other than Australia, actually possess it.” (p223)

When describing the attitude of some opponents of a charter for Australia, Robertson says: “Resistance to change is instinctive” and quotes Hillaire Belloc: ‘Always keep a-hold of nurse / For fear of finding something worse.’ (p93)

The Notes section of the book contains interesting background information.  A criticism is lack of an index for easy reference to topics.

I found Robertson’s contribution to Australia’s human rights debate to be compulsive reading:  I am going out to buy copies for my three adult daughters.  I recommend it as compulsory reading to all genuine doubters, and even – for the benefit of having factual information – to Bob Carr, Professor James Allan of Queensland University, and several of the senior editorial staff and columnists of The Australian newspaper!

– reviewed by Dr Kristine Klugman, President, CLA

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