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Published in ON LINE OPINION 25 February 2013

Australia was founded as a penal colony by Great Britain two hundred and twenty five years ago. There were no expectations on the part of colonial Britain that it would ever amount to much more. However, enterprise and greed, on the part of administrators, soldiers and released convicts saw commercial activity and farming gradually established; all at the expense of the original Aboriginal inhabitants who not unnaturally saw the move to permanent settlement as an invasion.

There was no concept of civil liberties relating to the Aboriginals and the convicts. Industrialisation in Britain saw social upheaval within a class structured society; the acquisition of wealth was a means of moving upwards in the structure. As the colonies began to prosper, some viewed migration to them as an easier way to gain wealth and status, others as the only way to escape poverty.

Wealth bestowed certain rights to the new elite in the Australian colonies, but that was the extent of civil liberties. Some cite the gold rushes as bringing people, mainly men, to Australian with a more independent outlook and a notion of the ‘rights of man’. They cite armed protest on the Victorian gold fields in December 1854, known as the Eureka Stockade, as proof of this and Republicans in Australia employ the symbolism of the event and the flag used by the protesters, as a prop in their campaign. However the uprising, as it romantically referred to, was a protest of frustration at the imposition of mining licence fees and police harassment involved with the collection of these fees.

White miners killed and injured Chinese miners, most seriously at Lambing Flat near Young in NSW but also on gold fields in Victoria. There was no notion of civil liberties relating to the persecuted Chinese, on the contrary fear over the loss of white jobs led to The White Australia Policy, in force from the 1880’s to the 1960’s.

Cheap Labour was introduced to Queensland sugar fields from men forcibly abducted from the Pacific Islands in the 1880’s. There was no protest from politicians, the public or the papers.

Civil Liberties, as we know them today, came through the Union Movement, which found expression through a number of strikes at the end of the 1880’s and early 1890’s, including a general maritime and shearers strike. It was from the union movement that the Labor Party was formed. But both the movement and the party supported White Australia.

The Bulletin Magazine fostered notions of nationalism and equality, the latter being driven by a desire for a better distribution of wealth. Hughes split the Labor Party and the nation with the debate over conscription for WWI, which he twice tried to introduce on 1916 and 1917. The attempt to introduce had nothing to do with the notion of civil liberty, although some argue that opposition did.

Contribution to WWI did not contribute to civil liberties and the notion of mateship did not extend to giving Aboriginal people equal rights including the vote. The Great Depression and the Australian response of working for the dole on made up projects did not contribute to civil liberties.

Prime Minister Menzies, in a deceitful sleight of hand, introduced conscription by ballot for service in Vietnam in 1964. That, together with Australian involvement in the war in Vietnam, once again tore the social fabric of Australia.

Free universal state funded education in all states did however contribute substantially to civil liberties as did giving women the vote, although it did not and has still not contributed to equality in the work place or indeed in some areas of Australian society. Australia is nominally a secular society but religion has been allowed to dominate debate and the practice of equality for women again in certain sectors of Australian society and in certain religions including Catholic and amongst some Muslims.

Aboriginal people have still not been empowered to take control of their own affairs. White paternalism dominates policy and debate within both the major parties, not much in the way of civil liberties there.

Compared to twenty five years ago Australia has gone backward in its treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Some have been imprisoned for two to three years. Howard government offshore processing has been re-introduced by a Labor Party in government, which once prided itself on its human rights and civil liberties credentials.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Robert Carr, acting to close off avenues of escape for persecuted Tamils from Sri Lanka has entered into the most unholy of alliances with the corrupt Rajapaksa regime to disrupt the boat traffic in asylum seekers. Perhaps we should not be surprised as this is the self regarding politician who mounted strange arguments against an Australian Bill of Rights, for reasons difficult to understand.

Unless we can protect the weakest among us and those seeking our protection we cannot claim to be a state which has a strong notion of civil liberties.

The fact remains however that Australia does not have a Bill of Rights and while it does not transgressions against the fundamental rights of individuals are made easier than if such a bill were in existence; the lives of Assange, Habib, Hicks, Haneef and Zygier might have had different outcomes. Once informed an organisation like ASIO might be compelled to inform relevant agencies of the detention of an Australian irrespective of real or perceived security concerns.

To secure and maintain the civil liberties inherited under our adoption of the Westminster system of government and the basic tenets of English law, Australians must rely on the court system interpreting a tangled web of now often contradictory laws that back our limited and fragile civil liberties.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator.