2009: the year ahead for Liberty Victoria

Michael Pearce SC

LIBERTY Victoria, like many civil liberties and human rights organisations, has endured a decade or more of non-stop action: we have spent much of the last 10 years reeling from sustained and escalating attacks on rights and liberties. However, the change in the Federal Government in 2007 has changed this.

While the new Government has not ushered in a utopia (and, of course, was never going to), there has been a welcome winding back of many of the most egregious infringements and a promise of more reforms. This has given Liberty a welcome respite and an opportunity to focus inwardly.

In part because of the demands on our meagre resources and despite the efforts of our dedicated staff and committee, our administrative capacities regularly fall short of our needs. We live from hand-to-mouth and lack a sufficient financial basis to sustain our activities over the long term. Much of my focus in the coming year will be to attempt to work out a sustainable financial and administrative model for Liberty. This will require, in particular, the identification of fresh sources of income and we will be asking members to help in this regard. If you have any ideas please fell free to communicate them to us.

Another area of inward focus in the coming year will be in our relationship with the Australian Council for Civil Liberties. The ACCL was recently established by Liberty Victoria and its sister organisations in New South Wales and Queensland because of a shared view that the time has come for an effective national body. Much of Liberty’s work, and that of its interstate counterparts, is federal in nature. Federal authorities increasingly expect to deal with national, rather than State-based, bodies. In addition, there are potential costs savings from sharing resources via a national body. The lack of a permanent civil liberties body in certain States could also be redressed by a national body.

The precise nature of Liberty’s interest in and relationship with the ACCL has yet to be determined. It is currently envisaged that the existing State-based bodies will remain members of the ACCL but that eventually individual memberships would be possible, for example in those States without a civil liberties organisation. It is also envisaged that much of the ACCL’s work will be done initially by those already involved in the State-based bodies. Thus, I expect that the State-based bodies will continue for some time to predominate and that it will be some time before a separate and well-resourced national body emerges.

A final area of inward focus results from our merger with Free Speech Victoria, which was completed last year. I am pleased as a result to welcome many new members of Liberty Victoria, whose FSV memberships were converted to Liberty memberships. I hope all of you will continue with your Liberty memberships. We are dedicated to continuing the activities of FSV, especially the annual Voltaire award. I would welcome any input from former FSV members on other ways we can carry on the work of FSV.

Despite the focus I have foreshadowed on internal matters in the coming year, rest assured that our policy work will continue. We will continue our public advocacy on a large range of subjects, especially for a national charter of human rights, privacy law reform, the humane treatment of asylum seekers, reform of anti-terror laws and improved access to justice, and against internet censorship. We already have working groups in these areas preparing public submissions. No doubt there will be other issues arising over the year. If there are issues our members think we should take up, please let us know.

Finally, as we look forward to the year ahead it is fitting to cast an eye backwards. In particular we should acknowledge the efforts of Julian Burnside AO QC as our President for the last two years and congratulate him on his well-deserved honour. We should also acknowledge the invaluable contribution of Evelyn Tadros who stepped in as Office Manager in difficult circumstances last year. Evelyn has substantially revamped our office procedures and created an administrative basis on which we can now build. She has now left that position to pursue her legal career but is not lost to us as she has been co-opted to the committee.

Michael Pearce SC was elected president of Liberty Victoria at last year’s annual general meeting.