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Rule of law lost – Thomson


Cite as: (2007) 81(3) LIJ, p. 22

With a federal election looming, new federal shadow Attorney-General Kelvin Thomson sets out to rejuvenate Australian ideals and belief in the rule of law.

Australia has lost respect for the rule of law and the administration of justice, according to new federal shadow Attorney-General Kelvin Thomson.

The treatment of alleged terrorist David Hicks during his five-year incarceration without trial at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay has forced Australian ideals to waver, the 51-year-old said.

“The David Hicks case long ago ceased being about David Hicks and began being about us and whether we still subscribe to habeas corpus with its respectable 800-year history,” Mr Thomson said.

“An element that has deteriorated under this government is respect for the judiciary and the willingness of the Attorney-General [Philip Ruddock] to defend the role of the judiciary and the role of the courts.”

While adamant about ensuring that Mr Hicks is afforded a fair trial as a matter of urgency, other key issues for Mr Thomson include strengthening freedom of information laws, increasing legal aid and legal community centre funding and harmonising federal and state laws.

Mr Thomson said should the Labor Party win this year’s federal election he would follow the British government’s approach to handling citizens incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay for alleged terror-related crimes, which was to have its citizens released into its custody.

“I would say the Military Commission does not constitute a fair trial. Either you try David Hicks in accordance with international legal standards or you return David Hicks to Australia to face prosecution here,” he said.

In reply, Mr Ruddock accused Labor of proposing Mr Hicks should not face any prosecution at all.

“Labor has made it clear that David Hicks should be allowed to return to Australia as a free man,” Mr Ruddock said.

Almost 100 federal MPs signed a letter drafted by Mr Thomson and Democrats leader Lyn Allison last month urging the US Congress to repatriate Mr Hicks.

Law Council of Australia president Tim Bugg also wrote to the US Congress and has encouraged Mr Thomson to remain outspoken on the issue.

At the time of going to print, a US conven-ing authority was assessing whether charges of attempted murder and providing material support for terrorism laid against Mr Hicks on 3 February were warranted.

Improving Australia’s international relations has been at the forefront of Mr Thomson’s agenda since he was moved from Human Services and Public Accountability Minister to shadow Attorney-General and Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in last December’s federal Labor shadow ministry reshuffle.

“I see it as part of my role to support proper international legal frameworks, rather than the law of the jungle because there has been too much of that. The invasion of Iraq was a celebrated case.”

Frustrated by a lack of freedom of speech and religious expression in Australia, Mr Thomson is seeking the abolition of the sedition laws under the Anti-Terrorism Act (No 2) 2005 (Cth).

His predecessor Nicola Roxon rigorously campaigned for a clear distinction to be made between freedom of speech and conduct calculated to incite violence.

Ms Roxon introduced a Crimes Act Amendment (Incitement to Violence) Bill 2005, which the Howard government has not supported or implemented.

Mr Thomson said he was committed to pushing for clear incitement to violence legislation this year.

The country requires people to seek to better understand each other rather than vilifying and demonising, Mr Thomson said.

Lifting public accountability by working to increase access to freedom of information documents was an important issue for many Opposition ministers, Mr Thomson said.

“This government has used conclusive certificates, excessive charges and a general tactic of delay to prevent the public from having access to documents which are after all prepared at the taxpayer’s expense,” he said.

“That attitude and culture is wrong. I would be abolishing the conclusive certificate.”

Mr Thomson conceded access to justice was a difficult area and he could not promise a magic wand; however, he was committed to fighting for more legal aid and community legal centre funding.

“I will do everything I can to ensure that there is nobody who can’t achieve their legitimate legal requirements for want of money,” he said.

Harmonising federal and state laws was also an important issue for the shadow Attorney-General and his leader Kevin Rudd.

“The Labor Party has made it clear that the present federal/state arrangements are in need of visiting and we have to stop playing the blame game,” Mr Thomson said.

A passion for justice issues was strengthened during Mr Thomson’s Melbourne University separate arts and law degrees.

Despite graduating with a first class honours law degree in 1987 and winning the Supreme Court Prize for top-ranked student, Mr Thomson chose not to practise law.

As a born and bred Pascoe Vale resident, Mr Thomson immediately ran for pre-selection for the state seat of Pascoe Vale after his graduation and won.

Serving on the Coburg City Council from 1981-88, and working for the Commonwealth Public Service Board, Commonwealth Ombudsman, Australia Post and the Hawke Labor government’s first Attorney-General Gareth Evans, put Mr Thomson in good stead for his political career.

From 1991-94 Mr Thomson was a member of the state Opposition shadow ministry and was manager of Opposition Business in 1994.

His long-term goal to follow former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke in serving as the federal member for Wills became a reality in 1996 when Mr Thomson was elected to federal Parliament.

He has since been shadow minister in a range of portfolios including assistant Treasurer, environment, regional development, human services and public accountability.

Despite his personal accomplishments, the past 15 years of Mr Thomson’s political career have been spent in opposition to longstanding Liberal leaders – in Victoria Jeff Kennett and federally John Howard.

“I preferred Howard to Kennett, who I regarded as very arrogant, as a very ‘I, me, my’ sort of person, but over the years I have changed my mind about that,” Mr Thomson said.

“I think Howard every day in every way, when he gets out of bed, is trying to do over the Labor Party and his means of doing that ends up dividing Australians against Australians, setting us against each other.

“It’s a divide and conquer sort of strategy. It doesn’t just damage the Labor Party, it damages the country,” he said.

The Labor party has a “clear-eyed” approach to this year’s federal election under Mr Rudd, he said.

“We believe we can win and we have done pretty well in recent polls, but it is wise not to overstate that and misunderstand what that means.”

Mr Thomson, who belongs to the Labor Unity Group, admitted factionalism had got out of control in the Labor Party last year, but there was a greater sense of stability and team work now.

“I think that everybody is keen that we win the next election and are happy to work together to win that objective,” he said.

While time out from politics is hard to come by for the self-proclaimed workaholic, Mr Thomson said birdwatching, following the Geelong Football Club and playing guitar with former Midnight Oil frontman turned Labor MP Peter Garrett at press gallery midwinter balls kept him entertained.


Legal priorities

Shadow Attorney-General Kelvin Thomson’s top five legal issues

  • Restoring respect for the rule of law and for the administration of justice.
  • Improving Australia’s international relations.
  • Harmonising federal and state laws.
  • Improving freedom of information and public accountability by abolishing the conclusive certificate.
  • Increasing legal aid and community legal centre funding.

In profile

  • Born 1 May 1955.
  • BA University of Melbourne 1976.
  • LLB University of Melbourne 1987. Won the Supreme Court Prize for top-ranked student.
  • Coburg City Council member 1981-88.
  • Won state seat of Pascoe Vale in 1987, was a member of the shadow Ministry from 1991-94 and manager of Opposition Business in 1994.
  • Elected as federal member for Wills in 1996, was a shadow Minister in a range of portfolios including Assistant Treasurer, Environment, Regional Development, Human Services and Public Accountability.
  • Promoted to federal shadow Attorney-General by Kevin Rudd on 10 December 2006.


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