Australia is a free country and the community enjoys many privileges and civil liberties.
However, the written Constitution contains few safeguards in this area and various pressure groups are constantly doing their best to reduce other people's rights.
Freedom of speech and thought, freedom of organisation and assembly and freedom to publish and to read are all under threat. Citizens should be free to follow any religion or none. They should be allowed to see any films they wish and to enjoy as wide a spectrum of radio and television programs as possible.
Employees should be free to join a trade union or to abstain from joining, just as employers should have similar rights in respect to their organisations.
Such a list of rights could be extended indefinitely, to include, for example, the following:
Accused persons should have a right to a speedy and impartial trial; to be told of charges against them; to have an adequate opportunity of answering those charges; and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty.
Consumers should have certain rights also - for example:
On the other hand, businesses should have their rights, too, - for example, the right to make a reasonable profit; the right to draw up contracts safe in the knowledge that the courts will not capriciously vary them; the right to engage in lawful activities without fear of retrospective legislation; and the right to stay in business even in the face of industrial militancy.
Should the Australian Constitution be amended to spell out guarantees of any specific rights? In addition to the items already mentioned other examples might include the following (in no particular order):
But where should such a list stop?
THE AUSTRALIAN CONSTITUTION
Our Constitution is silent in respect to all of these matters. Only two provisions in the Australian Constitution even remotely relate to civil rights - Section 116, prohibiting religious tests for public office, and Section 51 (xxxi), requiring just terms for compulsory property acquisitions by the Commonwealth Government (but even this provision does not extend to acquisitions by State Governments).
By contrast, the United States Constitution embodies a Bill of Rights, technically the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, adopted in 1791, of which the Fifth Amendment - exempting citizens from a requirement to give evidence which might tend to incriminate them - is probably the best known in Australia.
Computer and other files containing personal data require special safeguards, regardless of whether these files are maintained by Government departments or by private organisations: for example, the individuals concerned should be entitled to read their own files, to challenge certain kinds of entry, and to have mistakes corrected.
Unauthorised access to such files should be made a criminal offence as well as a civil tort giving a right to damages for invasion of privacy.
Compulsory voting at parliamentary elections, while prima facie a denial of liberty, has some offsetting virtues. It aids the democratic process by arousing greater elector awareness and it eliminates same voting abuses existing under voluntary systems. (In any case, the compulsion is to attend at the polling place, not to cast a formal vote.)
Consideration could well be given to making voting in trade union elections compulsory also.
Governments tend to be paternalistic and thus like to pass anti-gambling legislation (on a rather inconsistent pattern), partly to protect individuals against themselves and partly to discourage non-productive use of resources. It is hard to see why people who obtain pleasure from gambling should be treated differently from people who enjoy going to the theatre or the football.
The freedom to publish and to read is also being whittled away. Despite a popular image to the contrary, the Australian press is anything but free, being subject to laws relating to defamation, obscenity, blasphemy and sedition - quite apart from provisions relating to breach of Parliamentary privilege and contempt of court. The press also observes a voluntary but little-known code of self-censorship in regard to defence matters - the "D-Notice" system.
The preservation of our civil rights does indeed require eternal vigilance.
© N E Renton 2006
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