Wednesday, 2 September 2015

“Injustice thrives in the shadows”: Jennifer Robinson on freedom of speech and why Australia still hasn’t achieved it.

By Samantha Jones


Imagine a place where free speech was denied and human rights were continually violated: imagine Australia. This is what Jennifer Robinson, Australian Human Rights lawyer and free speech advocate, asked the audience attending the Alan Missen Oration at MWF to do.

The capacious and very public glass theatre that is Deakin Edge, seemed a fitting place to openly engage in ideas and opinions on contentious topics without fear of being prosecuted. Against the background of current issues such as Australia’s treatment of minority groups, including asylum seekers and Aboriginals, to metadata retention, Robinson laid the foundation for a discussion of free speech and why it is important in this country. She argued that in order to forge a better and just Australia, like that which the late senator Alan Missen stood for, freedom of speech and transparency of Government, are non-negotiables.

But what’s so important about free speech? According to Robinson, democracy depends on it. Even in Australia it is difficult to speak freely on some topics— especially whilst various laws, such as defamation and the Australian Border Force Act 2015, are in place. Robinson reflected on Missen’s advocacy for freedom of the press and the huge role it plays in democracy; including its ability to provide information and keep the government accountable for their actions—much like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, for whom Robinson is a legal advisor.

Assange shares Missen’s belief that information should be shared—Robinson reminded us that WikiLeaks revealed corruption, war crimes and torture, leading to possible democratic revolutions. Although Assange has been awarded the Sydney Peace Medal for his role in Human Rights activism, he is also facing prosecution for making confidential information freely available and is currently taking refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy.

Robinson outlined the avenues open to those in the  public seeking information, reinforcing the view that the fifth estate (the media), needs to keep the government accountable for what is happening behind closed doors. Politicians argue that having direct access to this information makes it difficult to have frank conversations. Robinson disagreed, arguing that in actuality, such access makes it harder for government to do the wrong thing behind closed doors. Detailing a long list of WikiLeaks revelations, she emphasised the importance of WikiLeaks Cables being ruled admissible in the Chagos Islands case, and proclaiming that from now on, we can now expect to see more such documents cited in future cases.

Missen, left a strong Human Rights legacy. He played an influential role in the passage of many legislative reforms including the Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. Hi also belonged to what was called, ‘the group of senators for lost causes’ a group who believed that no cause was lost while one person stood for it.

During her address, Robinson addressed the Indonesian occupation of West Papua. She asserted that the Australian media coverage of West Papua is sparse, to say the least. There are currently 51 West Papuan political prisoners being held by the Indonesian Government, including Filep Karma, who was imprisoned for raising the banned Papuan Morning Star flag –but we rarely hear about these prisoners. Robinson called on the Australia government to petition for the release of Filep Karma, and the 50 other political prisoners.

Other topics raised by Robinson during the session were the treatment of asylum seekers, inequality and the impending referendum—noting that Australia is the only Western democracy without a Bill of Rights in its constitution. Australia doesn’t have the right to free speech; free speech is merely implied, but cannot be guaranteed by the current constitution. Robinson stated that Human Rights laws need to be implemented into the Australian constitution. We as a democratic society can’t wait idly for someone who will defend human rights to be elected into power­—a Bill of Rights is needed.

Such a dismal reflection of our current society was lessened by Robinson’s closing words: “I have optimism for Australian people.”

 Edited by Jessica Donnison

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