Dear Members and Supporters of Liberty Victoria,
In 2001, as a student in Canberra, I remember first hearing about Liberty Victoria during the Tampa Affair. I learned of an organisation that was willing to take a stand against the Federal Government on behalf of those 433 people seeking asylum; of people like Julian Burnside, Christopher Maxwell, Eric Vardalis and the team at Holding Redlich. While they won at first instance they lost on appeal, but they acted in the public interest in taking a stand on behalf of those vulnerable people who couldn’t defend themselves in order to protect civil liberties and human rights.
Fast forward two decades and it’s been the honour of my professional life to lead this organisation over the past two years, and to follow in the footsteps of Presidents I’ve served under; Professor Spencer Zifcak, Michael Pearce SC, Jane Dixon KC, George Georgiou SC, Jessie Taylor, Julian Burnside AO KC, and Julia Kretzenbacher.
Our Immediate Past President Julia left us in a strong position when emerging from the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then we’ve held two successful Voltaire Human Rights Awards dinners. I’d like to again congratulate all our inspiring award winners, including the late Sophie Trevitt. Like everyone in the room, I was honoured and touched that Sophie’s Mother Anne, supported by Sophie’s Aunt Elizabeth, could accept the award on her behalf. I’m also pleased that from next year our Young Voltaire Award will be named the Sophie Trevitt Award in her honour. She was an incredible advocate who achieved so much in too short a time, especially for vulnerable children in the criminal justice system. Thanks to her work the first Australian jurisdiction, the ACT, has now committed to raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 by 2025.
Special thanks to those who made the Voltaire Awards dinner possible, including Michelle Bennett, Thomas Kane, Jessie Taylor, Lindy Smith and our new Executive Officer Niloofar Kalantar.
I’m proud of our work on the Referendum, with thanks to Gemma Cafarella. The outcome was disappointing, but given the lessons of history it was almost inevitable once the Opposition chose to oppose the Voice. If it wasn’t clear before, in an era of social media echo-chambers we’re going to have to find new ways to campaign, communicate and combat misinformation. We’ll also have to be vigilant with regard to how some might seek to use the result as a platform for a reactionary agenda.
I’d like to thank our stellar communications team, Andrew Rawson (design), Adam Pulford (social media), and Maelor Himbury (Liberty links), and our media team (who subject themselves to, amongst other things, a very active chat group at all hours of the day and night!).
We’ve continued to be active in the media this year, and the highlights of my time as President have been speaking with Damien Carrick on the ABC Radio National’s Law Report along with Sarah Schwartz from VALS on Victoria’s broken bail laws, and to Raphael Epstein on ABC Melbourne on free speech, protests and the Israel-Palestine war.
We’ve been also active in making submissions and preparing press releases, and we’ve given evidence to Parliamentary Inquiries on subjects as diverse as Australia’s Human Rights Framework (after preparing a comprehensive submission on the need for a Federal Human Rights Act), Sexual Offence Reform, and the emergence of far-right extremism and the banning of Nazi symbols. This has, on occasion, included us taking positions that have been unpopular but based the need for evidence-based law reform that will be effective, fair and proportionate.
We’ve also made submissions on topics ranging from anti-vilification reform (thanks to Jamie Gardiner OAM), the need for a Federal Judicial Integrity Commission (thanks to Gregory Buchhorn), the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s Inquiry into Recklessness (thanks to Sam Norton), on ending ‘permanent temporariness’ in the migration system (a joint submission with thanks to Hannah Dickinson), and to the Yoorrook Justice Commission on systemic inequality in the criminal justice system.
I’ve also been pleased to see our work extend to economic, social and cultural rights, including responding to the Robodebt Royal Commission, considering gambling reform, and Hannah Figueroa’s excellent article on the fate of Melbourne’s public housing towers.
Thanks to Lindy Smith for all her work coordinating volunteers, a vital resource for us at Liberty Victoria. We’ve been able to do some excellent work with their support, and that has proven to be an important pathway for people to then join our General Committee.
One of the highlights of my presidency has been strengthening bonds with other civil society organisations. That has included a joint letter with the NSW Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) on the need for a ceasefire in Palestine, a joint submission with NSWCCL on continuing detention orders (with thanks to former President of NSWCCL Josh Pallas and Isabelle Skaburskis), and a joint editorial with NSWCCL and the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties on the Voice. We also partnered with the Law Institute of Victoria and Digital Rights Watch on Victorian health information sharing reforms, and I’m pleased that our opposition, in part, contributed to much improved privacy protections.
Other than the Voltaire Awards, we’ve been involved in other events over the past year including joint online forum with NSWCCL on why civil liberties will matter in 2023, a panel on protecting the right to protest (which seems more relevant now than ever), partnering with the Wheeler Centre for an event on the Koori Court during NAIDOC week, and co-hosting an event with Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur for Palestine.
I’ve also been pleased to see improved diversity on our General Committee and our organisation being more representative of the wider community. I hope this will continue to improve in years to come.
I’d also like to thank those members of our General Committee who have stepped down this year, including Emily Arians, Pamela Curr OAM, Greg Hanson, Andreea Lachsz, and Tim Warner. I note that Tim has served on Liberty Victoria’s committees since 2007 (including as Treasurer), and has been an important contributor in the best traditions of the late Alan Missen. At Liberty Victoria we’re at our most effective when we remember that we share a liberal and a progressive tradition. To that end I’m also pleased to say that we’ve been consulted widely over the past two years from politicians across the political spectrum.
I know the organisation will be in good hands next year, and I’d also like to welcome the new faces that have joined us this year. It’s a vital part of our organisation that new people with fresh ideas rejuvenate our work.
I’d also like to thank the Rights Advocacy Project (RAP) for being a key part of Liberty Victoria in mentoring the next generation of human rights advocates, and thanks to outgoing chair Rochelle Francis for all her work, especially in steering RAP through the challenges of COVID-19.
Thanks also to the students from the Global Consulting Group at Monash University who prepared an excellent report on membership strategy. This year we launched ‘members week’, with photos and quotes from leading members of Liberty Victoria on the value of membership, which I hope will be a regular fixture in our calendar. We need to do more to encourage people to join us.
Last, but by no means least, I’d like to thank my partner Reem and son Rayan for supporting me to do this work. When I look around the (often online) table at Liberty Victoria meetings and see the amazing people I work with, I know I’m part of a wonderful community of advocates who will seek to protect and promote civil liberties and human rights, both now and in the years to come.
(Former) President, Liberty Victoria