Liberty beyond Voltaire: president's report

Michael Pearce SC

There are three major developments at Liberty to report on since my last column. The first is the completion of the National Consultation on Human Rights which occurred on 15 June 2009. Liberty made a major submission which was coordinated by Vice-President Prof. Spencer Zifcak, with the assistance of a working group of the Liberty Committee.

The submission can be accessed from our website. It provides a cogent and compelling argument for a federal Human Rights Act, similar to the Victorian Charter. The Liberty submission to the National Consultation was one of a massive 40,000 submissions. Many of these submissions were standard form and generated by interest groups such as GetUp! (for a Human Rights Act) and the Australian Christian Lobby (against). But there were many considered individual submissions and even the standard form ones showed some degree of involvement in the debate.

The consultation committee, chaired by Father Frank Brennan, is to be congratulated for generating this level of interest in its work. It resulted in no small part from the numerous community consultations conducted throughout Australia by the committee.

We now await the committee’s report and the Federal Government’s response to it. Liberty is confident of a considered and balanced report from the committee and even hopeful that it will recommend some form of federal legislative enactment of human rights protections. However, caution is advised in anticipating the Federal Government’s response. The opponents of a Human Rights Act have strong connections to the Government, irrespective of the weakness of their arguments.

The second major development at Liberty was the passing of its annual budget at the committee meeting in June. As previously reported the outlook for Liberty is challenging and we have set ourselves three major goals to ensure we stay in the black. The first was to break even on our annual dinner. The second is to attract at least 50 new members. The third is to increase annual donations by $2000.

I am pleased to say that, in the wake our annual dinner on 18 July 2009, we have made great strides in achieving all these objectives. The dinner was attended by almost 200 people, which enabled us to make a small profit. We also signed up 26 new members at the dinner. In addition we netted about $1300 from the silent auction and another $1000 in donations. So we are on track for achievement of our budgetary goals but more needs to be done.

The Voltaire Award Dinner was more than just a financial success. Thanks in particular to the organising efforts of committee member Marian Steele and Office Manager Alex Krummel, it was the best attended dinner for many years. MC Julia Zemiro (who donated her services) was delightful and kept us entertained all night. Brain Walters SC, a former President of Liberty and Vice-President of Free Speech Victoria, made the Voltaire Award to GetUp! Unfortunately, GetUp! National Director Simon Sheikh was unable to attend because of illness but he was ably replaced by Ed Cope, who accepted the award on GetUp!’s behalf. Ed’s acceptance speech detailed the difficulties that even GetUp! faces in getting an alternative voice heard in the mainstream media and reinforced the need for vigilance in the area of free speech.

I am sure I speak for all who attended the dinner in saying it was an unqualified success. For those members who were unable to attend, there are some more events coming up later this year. These include a film night (on 19 August at the Nova, Carlton) and the Allan Missen Oration, which will be held this year in conjunction with our Annual General Meeting in November. I hope to see you there.