Saturday 5 December 2009

Saturday SoapBlog: Bryan Law - Is the law warful?

Veteran community activist Bryan Law, is a 56-year-old former mayoral candidate, bush lawyer, who boasts 36 arrests and 5 jail terms, at last count, to his name.

For 35 years, he has galvanised and divided opinion, however often has respect from many extremes across Australia.

Law featured in an extensive Al Jazeera documentary earlier this year, in a story about four untrained activists breaking into Australia's most secure defense facility.

In December 2005, Law joined 3 other members of a non-violent group and broke into the Alice Springs base, alleged that the facility was a spy base pinpointing targets in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and felt morally obliged to stop what they saw as Australia's secret cooperation in the war.

He's been at the frontline of protest from the famous Daintree Blockade, to the construction of Sky Rail, and hundreds of anti-war events, under the Peace by Peace banner.

Today, Bryan Law takes the CairnsBlog SoapBlog.

He discusses protesting and standing up for principals, as a legitimate part of the political discourse, which often gathers as many friends as foes. Either way, Bryan Law never walks away from his beliefs and his focus to engage politicians in debates, he sees as important to confront as a community.

“My Lords, civil disobedience on conscientious grounds has a long and honourable history in this country. People who break the law to affirm their belief in the injustice of a law or government action are sometimes vindicated by history. The suffragettes are an example which comes immediately to mind.

It is the mark of a civilised community that it can accommodate protests and demonstrations of this kind. But there are conventions which are generally accepted by the law-breakers on one side and the law-enforcers on the other.

The protesters behave with a sense of proportion and do not cause excessive damage or inconvenience. And they vouch the sincerity of their beliefs by accepting the penalties imposed by the law. The police and prosecutors, on the other hand, behave with restraint and the magistrates impose sentences which take the conscientious motives of the protesters into account. The conditional discharges ordered by the magistrates in the cases which came before them exemplifies their sensitivity to these conventions”.

These are not the words of some radical ratbag trying to avoid responsibility for their actions. They come from a dude called Lord Hoffmann.

The words formed part of his judgement in a 2006 case - R v Jones – a referral to the House of Lords concerning a series of direct actions taken against British involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The civil disobedience involved unlawful entry onto military bases. The key questions in R v Jones was whether or not a war of aggression was a crime in international law (it is), whether or not that illegality translates into British domestic law (it does in some circumstances), and whether that can be subsequently used by citizens to justify civil disobedience (it does not). The matter was decided by a panel of five Law Lords.

I’ll be citing Lord Hoffmann in my appeal on Tuesday 8 December in the Cairns District Court because I believe he has succinctly captured the essence of civil disobedience as a criminal offence. Illegal behaviour cannot be condoned, but the penalty for it ought be kept in proportion, and ought pay attention to the surrounding circumstances.

Anyone who reads my criminal history will see that the first offences were all related to the movement for civil liberties in Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Trevor Black SM noted in September this year that several of my offences were for the crime of “delivering an address in public without a permit”. This was during the 1980s when giving such a speech was illegal. At the time a whole bunch of us were trying to prevent the export of Australian Uranium to Iran - then ruled by the Shah. That Uranium is today a vital part of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

When Tony Fitzgerald reported on the outcome his inquiry in 1989 he said of these matters:

  • “The right of public assembly has traditionally been regarded as analogous to the right of free speech, and a touchstone of the respect given to other civil liberties within a society.

    In these days of a mass media, it holds an even greater significance since the main way for groups within the community to gain the attention of the media and therefore the public is by “creating” news events by holding rallies and marches.

The banning of street marches in Queensland, and the 1977 amendments to the Traffic Act 1949-77, made a police officer the final arbiter of whether a demonstration should be permitted. These measures produced for many years confrontation between demonstrators and the Police Force, to their mutual disadvantage. The bans increased the civil disorder which they were ostensibly intended to prevent”.

Part of the dynamic of Police corruption in the 1980s was the Police Commissioner and his senior officers providing political protection for the Premier, in return for which they themselves were kept safe from prosecution. I spent months in Queensland prisons for my crimes.

All of us involved in free speech and right to march issues in Queensland have been subsequently vindicated in the sense meant by Lord Hoffmann. The Peaceful Assembly Act of 1992 is the legislative instrument of our vindication.

Lord Hoffmann sees civil disobedience from the bench in a manner perfectly complementary with the way Dr Martin Luther King Jr saw it from the prison cells of Birmingham, Alabama. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Dr King said in his letter “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law”.

It seems to me that Queensland is now returning to the Bjelke-Petersen days of cronyism, and of politics conducted without principle. Of elections conducted without information or debate, and with politicians like Cairns MP Desley Boyle behaving in a dishonest and vindictive way. Tony Fitzgerald thinks so too.

As a citizen I’m confronted by the choice to let these shysters get away with it clean, or to rise up and have a go at them. No prizes for guessing what I chose.

I encourage all of you to think about it as well. What are you going to do?

I’ll end with two quotes from great nonviolence practitioners.

Mahatma Gandhi: “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny”.

Dr King: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”.
Come to the Cairns District Court at 9.30am on Tuesday and hear the discussion. I’m not really a ratbag. Honest.

NB: If you would like to get on the CairnsBlog SoapBlog, drop me an email.


Bryan Outlaw said...

All this to avoid community service?

You love hearing the sound of your own voice, don'tcha Bryan? You're the only one in the region who thinks "community service" is too harsh a punishment for a criminal act. The vast majority of the public believe you should be jailed.

"Ratbag" in the Macquarie dictionary is illustrated with your photo.

B. Lawless said...

Yawn...where's Syd?