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Staples launches civil liberties history

Staples launches civil liberties history

The fragility of democracy, particularly when war is in the air, was the theme of CLA Director James Staples’ speech to officially launch, in the national capital, the Liberating of Lady Chatterley and Other True Stories: A History of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties.


Staples explains the fragility of a democracy at war

This is a report, by CLA CEO Bill Rowlings, of a speech by James Staples at the launch in Canberra of the book, Liberating of Lady Chatterley and Other True Stories:  A History of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, written by Dorothy Campbell and Scott Campbell.

James Staples, launching the latest contribution to civil liberties in Australia, highlighted the nation’s convict origins and how fragile our supposedly democratic ideals were when push came to shove around wars and military interventions.

“There is a prevalence of authoritarianism in Australian public affairs which is deeply rooted in our convict origins in chains under the discretions of colonial Governors,” Mr Staples said.

“We have not escaped from that past. This book is one story of a range of matters taken from the recent past, which bear witness to the fact that authoritarianism continues unrestrained today.

“Storytelling stands large in the life of every society.  In all sorts of subtle ways we take order and understanding of the scheme of things from the stories we read and hear. Without history books there would be less moral guidance for those who take clarity in life from the books of religion; and without history there would be no intelligible grasp of the common law, of parliamentary forms, of the constitutional distribution of civil power. 

“History can reveal the reason – and the unreason – of modern rules. Things stand in better order under the guidance of the story tellers.

“The New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) began a movement of great importance across Australia. The authors of this work have selected out nine claims that were put in issue over time. There were  others to which a want of space has denied a  full account. In this splendidly written, helpfully arranged and detailed history of the NSWCCL we see the work of a voluntary association of laymen, academics, lawyers and some prominent politicians acting together in Sydney after 1963 under an unstated determination to drag civic affairs in the town into the second half of the 20th century, already bulking large in Europe and North America.

“No-one put it that way, but that was the work in hand,” he said.

“It was a new age – the age of the Qantas Boeing 707 jet to London, of a new Europe, an awakening Asia. Carnaby Street and Bali called the youth away.

“The multilith press rescued the articulate from the established printing houses, their magazines and newspapers. It was the age of Vietnam and conscription, marihuana, LSD,  Bob Dylan, the Beatles, women’s liberation, green bans, and the claim across the community that a woman had a right to choose.

“The NSWCCL was a citizens’ voluntary institution that spawned public institutions, State and Commonwealth legal  aid, the Ombudsmen, the Aboriginal Legal Service, and services advertised under the letter A in the yellow pages of the telephone book, to name a few.

“ No one can gainsay their contribution to our public life. They forced a new class of person into the judiciary and the magistracy. They forced new thinking into the prisons by way of constant exposures and a Royal Commission.

“The old world had to give way: it was pushed away and it pushed determinedly back.

“The NSWCCL was a numerous, active, coherent, lively, disparate group. People were far from one mind, but there were common purposes, and morale was always of a high order. It was strangely unmarked by party loyalties, by personal strife and rivalry. There were many people who went far in later public life, but no one comes to mind who sought to make his way in the CCL to go on to greater things.

“Not many broad voluntary associations around a political cause survive for three years or more. This one has survived to this day, and spawned like groups elsewhere, each acting according to its lights,” he said.

Mr Staples gave a rundown of democracy down the ages, highlighting its central place in the life of Athens, for example, before returning the more local matters.

“And so we come to Australia, passing from the Assembly in Athens and the pursuit of open covenants openly arrived at to the secret plotting for the war in Iraq between Washington and Canberra,” Mr Staples said.

“From long before the killing of a million Iraqis commenced with shock and awe, John Howard made four trips to Washington in the twelve months or so before the war, but he said not a word to us about his engagements.

“He sent away our soldiers without a discussion in his cabinet, without a debate and a vote in his party room, without a debate and a vote in the Parliament. For six weeks before the overt aggression on 19 March 2003, our soldiers were already engaged in Iraq in military action.

“He acted outside of and in defiance of a constitutional provision limiting us all, including John Howard, to acts for the naval and military defence of the Commonwealth and of the several states…and no more. What urgency was there in Iraq that matched the sudden strike of the Japanese on 7 December 1941 on Honolulu , and on Hong Kong and Singapore on the next day, 8 December?

“Our government of the day, on 16 December 1941, took the question of a declaration of war on Japan to Parliament. It had been dealing with Westminster out of identity with, and loyalty to, the Empire which included those impermanents, Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as the home country. Curtin and Evatt did not claim we could act against Japan outside the constitutional limitation to the naval and military defence of the Commonwealth and the States, although Menzies had assumed in 1939 we would act against Germany and Italy as a matter of course by reason of the Imperial connexions.

“There was no threat from Japan to our shores. We had no rubber, no coal, no oil, no tin, no spices, no softwood; the gold was spent. We had no industry, no numerous workforce. There was Broken Hill and Whyalla’s Iron Knob, of course, but not much else. We had only the sands and rocks of the desert all over and a drought-prone strip on the east. Why should Japan press beyond Asia to our north?

“We know now that Japan had never intended to invade us,” Mr Staples said. “The concern of Japan was to put a ring around their Co-Prosperity Sphere to our north, to drive out and to keep out the British, the French, the Dutch  and the Americans.

“The UK had no intention of defending us from them if they invaded. Our wool was of no great account to Britain. Enough was available close at hand in South Africa, the United States and the Argentine. Britain wanted our few soldiers to go to Burma to defend India, the jewel in the Crown.

“We were sent a special royal instrument from the Palace directed to our Governor-General to make good the constitutional deficiency for the occasion and upon the faith of which our Ministers advised that we declare war upon Japan, putting to one side the domestic constitutional limitation and despite the plain strategic considerations advanced in opposition to that course by some in our midst.

“A few were saying we should put Australia first. They took the name of their cause from that phrase.

“We demonised the distinguished scholar, publisher and writer, ‘Inky’ Stephensen, together with his few adherents, for merely making the counter-argument. We seized them and kept them in gaol for over three years, without charge or trial.

“It so happens that Stephensen may have been right to call for negotiation with Japan, but war-time is no occasion to exercise freedom of speech. It is better to plunge on regardless. It is only lives and treasure that are at stake,” he said.

“The defence power in Australia has not been enlarged since those days. Nothing since that time has changed, beyond that the Australia Act of 1985 prevents us now from going to London for permission to undertake a war of aggression.

“The same man, John Howard, has given us David Hicks, and Mohamed Haneef,  Mamdouh Habib, and Izhar Ul-Haque in pursuit of the so-called “national security” laws. These laws repudiate 500  years of fundamental precepts developed by our criminal laws – laws which have dealt perfectly well with all acts of criminal violence in the community to this day,” he said.

Mr Staples said that John Howard had given Australia Police Commissioner Keelty who was now in full flight as a policeman who knows politics.

“The provisions in the Crimes Act against subversion and sedition I reject, but they are emblems of liberalism compared with what Howard gave us and what Keelty and ASIO now run with.  What Howard gave us are not laws. They are licences for no-law,” he said.

“I remember that we published in the early 1960s in the NSWCCL a pamphlet, drafted by the lawyers of the NSWCCl, on the law of arrest and detention, questioning and charge, entitled ‘If You Are Arrested’. In those days the police were on a roll.

“On not a few occasions when the police were bringing cases arising from Vietnam and conscription protests, about indecent and obscene publications, for sit-downs in the forests, for the Builders Labourers Federation, urban planning and green bans, for possession of pot, and language in a public place, prosecutors mentioned to the court that a copy of a publication entitled ‘If You Arrested’ was found on the person of the defendant. For what prejudice was induced, one can only guess. There are no statistics.

“This new publication before us has a far larger purpose: it traverses a wide range of matters that had become critical to liberty of expression and civic right in NSW.

“I shall not go to them now for fear of the bell, I shall have to leave it be, but I think we will all be much better instructed by the reading. This work speaks for itself.”

Mr Staples said the NSWCCL history could stand proudly alongside the book on the life of Brian Fitzpatrick, who was instrumental in fostering Victoria’s civil liberty organizations dating from the 1930s.

“The task, now – at this moment – is to ask you to help to move this work from the hands of our much loved and long admired friends, that duo in decency, Dot and Scot Campbell. With this book, they have done their part, indelibly, and not for the first time,” Mr Staples said.


This article is drawn from a speech by current CLA Director, and longtime NSWCCL stalwart
from its earliest days, James Staples, to launch the book in Canberra,
at Daltons Books, Civic, Sunday 17 Feb 2008.

The Liberating of Lady Chatterley and Other True Stories: A History of the NSW Council for Civil
Liberties (by Dorothy and Scott Campbell, publisher: NSWCCL, Sydney 2007).
To buy a copy of the book in Canberra, go to
Daltons Books in Civic, or Paperchain Bookstore in Manuka.
Alternatively, email for further details of other ways to purchase a copy.

Caption: Authors Scott and Dot Campbell with book launcher and CLA Director, James Staples.

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