OPINION: We’re pretty lucky in Australia, even here in NSW. For all the shortcomings and injustices in our country and in our state, election campaigns give every voter the opportunity to take a part in making or breaking a government. There’s plenty of argument in the countdown to election day but thankfully little if any argument about the result.
Disagreements are the essence of our democracy but in a fiery election campaign it’s sometimes difficult for voters to distinguish the heat from the light. A straightforward question a voter can ask of their candidates this election is, ‘when developing your policies, did you listen to the experts?’
The Law Society of NSW, as always, stands ready to assist government with careful and considered input to the complex policy questions confronting our society. Some of the most accomplished legal minds in NSW sit on our 18 policy committees.
They have helped to craft an Election Platform to guide whichever party or coalition forms government after polling day, in exactly four months. I’m honoured to launch that platform today.
The platform advocates the strengthening of the justice system through measures and approaches designed to empower the vulnerable, improve the courts and establish legal frameworks to deal with challenges of the future.
The issues range from ensuring the most ancient continuing culture on the planet is co-designing government decisions that affect Indigenous people, to ensuring our laws and courts are supporting the way modern communities interact.
The federal referendum on The Voice is on the way. The incoming NSW Government will have work to do on Treaty and Truth, as Victoria and other jurisdictions are already doing. The appalling and ongoing tragedy of overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system must be addressed. The child welfare system must do more to keep Indigenous families together.
Our older citizens need protection from predatory and abusive behaviours by those who are supposed to love and care for them. Our community needs to shed dehumanising ageist attitudes that rob our older citizens of dignity and even safety.
In the wake of COVID-19 restrictions that challenged the understanding of the human rights that many people thought they had, the people of NSW would benefit protections similar to those enacted in the ACT, Victoria and Queensland. Our decades old Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 is long overdue for a comprehensive review, if not overhaul.
Our courts and legal processes can be modernised by reaping the digital benefits introduced to keep court users safe during the pandemic. People in our regions don’t deserve the geographical discrimination of post-code justice that prevents them having the same access as metro residents.
More can be done to ensure the disadvantaged and vulnerable have adequate legal representation when they need it. Our Probationary Constables are owed more adequate legal training, so they leave the Police Academy better equipped for the onerous task of enforcing the law fairly, particularly when dealing with vulnerable people.
In an era of falling crime, we need to be locking up fewer people, not more. This includes implementing immediately the Ice Inquiry’s recommendation of a pre-court diversion scheme for minor drug possession offences. This is a decision for government now, not the chief health and police bureaucrats, months down the track.
These are just a few of the issues addressed in the Law Society’s Election Platform. Yes, it’s quite a shopping list, but the items on that list are reasonable and appeal to a broad cross section of the community.
The Law Society looks forward to receiving responses from parties and candidates in the coming weeks and publishing them.
After the election, when the time comes to implement these or any other policies, the incoming government will do well to listen to the experts.
Sadly, there’ve been examples in the late stages of this Government where the experts have been ignored resulting in flawed ‘reform’.
“When just one or two seats can mean the difference between exercising power or languishing in opposition, the temptation can be overwhelming to prefer fomenting fear to advocating rational law reform with the benefit of broad consultation”
We’ve seen criminal justice amendments emerging from talkback radio and tabloid headlines, rather than considered, evidence-based reform that strengthens the justice system and improves community safety.
These amendments were no sooner proposed by Government than waved through by an opposition hungry to share the political red meat. Just one example is the near legally unworkable bail amendment requiring (in the absence of extraordinary circumstances) offenders awaiting sentence to be remanded in custody if they ‘will be sentenced to … full time detention’.
At first blush that might seem sensible, but section 22B of the Bail Act is an unwarranted intrusion on the sentencing process. It almost requires judges to have the powers of a psychic. The judgments of higher courts on this provision highlight the folly of such knee-jerk responses.
State election campaigns can subject the rule of law to almost unbearable tension. When just one or two seats can mean the difference between exercising power or languishing in opposition, the temptation can be overwhelming to prefer fomenting fear to advocating rational law reform with the benefit of broad consultation.
The Law Society is responsible for 38,000 solicitors across our state. These lawyers are on the ground every day, helping clients write a will or buy a house, keeping a troubled young person out of jail, prosecuting dangerous offenders and helping business and government operate within the law.
The next state government will have the opportunity to build a fairer NSW. The Law Society of NSW will be ready to provide the expert input needed, to help achieve that fairness.
All the next government has to do, is ask.