Reality bites as ACT government rests on its laurels

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“The fact the ACT government is resting on its laurels is increasingly apparent. Its obsessive mantra that it is the most progressive government in Australia always brings to my mind Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Glory Days’,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE.

LAST edition I wrote about the tragic death of Jonathan Hogan, an Aboriginal man from Canberra who died in prison because, in the view of the coroner, he did not receive the health care he needed.

Jon Stanhope.

I concluded by recommending that all governments in Australia introduce legislation on corporate murder and manslaughter that mirrors the UK Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

That Act provides for corporations and government authorities responsible for the health, safety and welfare of people who died in police custody, prison, youth detention, immigration detention or mental health facilities to potentially be charged with corporate murder or manslaughter if a person in such a facility dies, for example, in the circumstances in which Jonathan Hogan died.

I cannot think of any reason, other than self-preservation, why the ACT or any other government, would not enact such a law. It is in effect conceptually no different than the industrial manslaughter laws that exist in the ACT and throughout Australia.

The reason I have returned to the subject is the deeply disturbing allegations made by shadow Corrective Services Minister Giulia Jones about the care and treatment – or more precisely, the lack thereof – for the mentally ill Aboriginal man in the AMC who was the object of the obscenely racist “hangman” scandal. 

I am also, more generally, exercised by the tepid response by governments across Australia to the shameful increase in Aboriginal incarceration. 

It is, of course, doubly shameful that the ACT leads the way. In the last eight years, or since Shane Rattenbury became Minister for Corrections, the number of Aboriginal people imprisoned in the ACT has increased by more than 200 per cent.

I have also lately felt increasingly agitated, as Australia approaches the seventh anniversary of our adoption of the ALP’s mandatory off-shore detention policy, about the silence that has descended on Australia about the fate of the asylum seekers still stuck in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru. 

On the point of the effectiveness of corporate murder/manslaughter laws, I feel sure that had they applied to the management of immigration detention facilities in Australia and in our off-shore camps that the number of deaths of asylum seekers that have occurred in the last seven years would have been less. 

I am also convinced that corporate murder/manslaughter laws would have a similarly sobering and effective impact on the quality of the management and care provided in prisons and other forms of detention.

However, on the question of human rights and progressivity, the ACT government is on increasingly shaky ground. 

That the government is resting on its laurels is increasingly apparent. Its obsessive mantra that it’s the most progressive government in Australia always brings to my mind Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days”.

The void between reality and the government’s perception of itself is most striking in relation to health and housing. 

Labor and the Greens no longer even pretend to be committed to affordable housing and have hollowed out health funding to the point that Canberrans without private health insurance, most notably people from lower-income households, are left to wait years for medical treatment essential to quality of life.

A recent example of the government’s shift-shaping is Attorney-General, Gordon Ramsay’s draft legislation designed to criminalise elder abuse. The presidents of the Law Society and the Bar Association, admittedly organisations not generally considered as falling within the Labor-loving, wine and cheese night, pinko-lefty category, were sufficiently provoked to describe the legislation and the process which begat it as “flawed”; “unacceptable”, “poorly thought out”, “ arbitrary”, “particularly disappointing”, “unnecessary” and “confusing”. The president of the Bar Association was quoted as saying the legislation was introduced for “a headline”.

I agree. There is an undeniable whiff of a stunt about this legislation. Just, of course, as there are over the half-baked laws decriminalising the growing of marijuana. 

If Gordon Ramsay is serious about human rights and in pursuing legislative change that will make a difference I recommend he dust off the report of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Research Project, a collaboration between the ANU and his department (September 2010, ANU College of Law Research Paper no. 10 ). 

The report provides a detailed analysis of the nature and scope of such rights and the desirability of their being included in the ACT Human Rights Act. The report even includes a draft Bill prepared by the ACT parliamentary counsel.

What is it Attorney that you fear about the draft Bill? I assume, in light of the record of your government on housing and health that it is the ridicule you would be subjected to if you stood up to argue that a right to housing and a right to health are inalienable human rights. 

However, let’s be fair; the Bill has only been around for 10 years!



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Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.

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