Why we need a Labor for Civil Liberties

Over the past few years, we have seen the emergence of a range of different Labor interest groups. These groups have contributed a lot to the direction the party has taken. They have provided a collective voice that has pressured Labor for better approach on a range of policy matters.

We saw it at the ALP National Conference where the Labor Environment Action Network got a commitment of a 50% renewable energy target by 2030 and where Rainbow Labor achieved an end to the conscience vote on marriage equality. On a range of issues, these groups are being heard and making a difference.

But there is one voice that is missing and sorely needed inside Labor. What is missing is an internal party group that will fight for and campaign for our civil liberties.

There are voices that have stood up for civil liberties within the parliamentary caucus and at Conferences but there needs to be a permanent internal party group that will consistently and constantly push the party towards a better position on civil liberties.

Historically, the Society of Labor Lawyers has played that role but it is not just lawyers that care about our civil liberties. An internal pressure group fighting for civil liberties would not only complement the work they do but would also show that there are many (non-lawyer) members in the Labor Party that are committed to defending civil liberties, a fight that is happening right now.

In the same week that we celebrated the 800th anniversary Magna Carta, the Abbott Government was trying to ram through anti-terrorism laws that undermined the rule of law. Labor’s response to left much to be desired. To many, it looked like Labor did not want a fight and sought to avoid being painted as “supporting terrorists”.

These draconian anti-terrorism laws aren’t the only example of our civil liberties being rolled back by governments. There have also been attacks on our right to digital privacy, our access to justice and our freedom of association, just to name a few. These attacks by the Abbott Government are unlikely to stop any time soon.

As the Abbott Government seeks to use national security as a wedge issue for electoral gain and Labor tries to be a small target, it becomes all the more important that within Labor, members fight for civil liberties. Those within Labor who support civil liberties may not always win but we need to be heard. 

It has always been a battle within Labor to defend our civil liberties. You see it in state Labor Governments that go to extreme lengths to never be outflanked on law-and-order by their right-wing opponents. Even as Doc Evatt valiantly fought to oppose the constitutional banning of the Communist Party, there were some within the party who did not support him. It demonstrates the importance of fighting for civil liberties within the Labor Party. It is a contested space. 

At the 1967, ALP National Conference, future Attorney-General and High Court Justice, Senator Lionel Murphy argued that: 

Every generation has to fight over and over again the battle for our fundamental rights and liberties and this generation has to do that also. We Australians tend to think that our civil liberties are beyond question. Almost every one of our fundamental rights and liberties has been either trampled on, whittled away, challenged or ignored in Australia.”

His words still ring true today. This generation of Labor activists needs to step up and fight for our rights but we can only do it collectively. We need to fight because the alternative is surrendering and ceding our hard fought rights and liberties.

Published at the Labor Herald on 14 August 2015

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