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There can be little doubt that the cause of civil liberties and human rights has suffered a serious setback in recent times. There are a number of reasons that have been offered for this. Some understandable, others not. It is, however, worth pausing to reflect that once gone those rights and liberties are very difficult to claw back.
Difficult, but not impossible.
And it is with this sense of optimism that the work of Liberty Victoria must continue in 2016. First, to defend those rights and freedoms from further erosion. Second, to advocate for the restoration of those rights and freedoms lost. The work of the committees in the last 12 months has been frenetic but provides a solid base for the challenges that lie ahead.
2015 has been an extremely busy year. In January we moved to our new office in Carlton. We are extremely grateful to Michael Drapac and the Drapac Group who, for a number of years, provided us with office space and who included us in their office move earlier this year.
One of Liberty Victoria’s core functions, the making of submissions to various agencies and government bodies on proposed legislative change, has seen some 25 submissions being made in the year between July 2014 and June 2015. These include submissions to the Victorian Government’s review of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, the Commonwealth’s Inquiry into the Australian Citizenship (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015, Adoption of children by same sex couples, Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, to name but a few. All of the submissions are found on Liberty’s website (which is at long last being revamped) and shows the hard work and dedication of our Committee members and volunteers.
Once again, this year, Liberty Victoria worked collaboratively with our interstate colleagues on a number of submissions, and with our own Young Liberty for Law Reform (YLLR) on others. This collaborative work while itself an efficient way of best using our scarce resources, has also meant that we were exposed to different views and opinions of organisations with similar goals. We hope to continue this trend in 2016.
Not all submissions were in response to proposed legislation. For example, Liberty Victoria combined with the Australian Association for Unmanned Systems to prepare a paper “The Use of Drones in Australia; An Agenda for Reform”. The release of this paper attracted widespread attention and was followed up with a public seminar on the topic. We were also proud to assist YLLR with its Age Determination Report, the submission on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) asylum seekers.
A number of events were held this year aimed at raising public awareness of the importance of current human rights issues. “Beyond Bars, Reflecting on the Rights of Victoria’s Prisoners” at the Wheeler Centre drew a full house. This seminar sprang from a submission prepared by Liberty Victoria and YLLR to the Victorian Ombudsman for prison reform.
In August of 2014 we were fortunate to have our Patron, Michael Kirby AC CMG give the Alan Missen Oration at the Melbourne Writers Festival. This was 28 years after Michael gave the inaugural Alan Missen Oration in 1986.
This year our guest speaker at the 2015 Alan Missen Oration was lawyer and world-renowned human rights advocate Jennifer Robinson. Jennifer gave a powerful speech on the importance of human rights, against the backdrop of the Federal government’s recently introduced Border Force Act.
Operation GAG was a night of light hearted entertainment and it was great to see so many members turn up for some great comedy. Liberty was also involved in the staging of the play “The Process” at La Mama Theatre, a look at detention from the perspective of a refugee.
The 2014 Voltaire Award went to inspirational recipient, Yu Lipski, courageous whistle-blower.
This year’s Voltaire Award was given to Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. The Age’s Michael Bachelard was guest speaker. Not long after this event, Fahmy and Baher were released from their Egyptian prison. However, it is worth remembering that hundreds of journalists worldwide continue to languish in prison, simply for reporting the news.
Robert Stary spoke at our 2014 AGM. The event was very generously hosted by Colin Biggers and Paisley who have continued to support our organisation and host our monthly Policy Committee meetings. We thank them for having us here once again.
The scourge of terrorism has seen some significant legislative responses in the last year that have impacted on our rights and liberties. There will be more to come. The cruel and inhumane detention of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island continues. The high and disproportionate incarceration rates amongst this country’s aboriginal population continues, as do the high numbers of prisoners in Victorian gaols.
Liberty Victoria will continue to review and question government policies and legislation that impact upon our freedoms. No right or freedom should be affected without good and proper justification. We will continue to ask whether the measure or proposed measure is necessary; whether it is proportionate; whether there is not a better alternative, and we will advocate for change when necessary.
To achieve our aims, we rely upon your support, your ideas and your views. On behalf of Liberty Victoria, I thank you for your support in 2015 and look forward to your continued support in 2016. I also express our gratitude to all of the members of our committees, volunteers, executive staff and to those who will be leaving us this year, our former President, Justice Jane Dixon and committee members Anne O’Rourke, Michael Cohn and Michael Webster.
George Georgiou SC