US Senate Committee rebels – basic foundations of the rule of law hang in the balance

A follow up to my previous post about the review of sedition laws – as noted in one of the comments on that piece, some people see community concern about the sedition laws as just a beat-up by paranoid anti-government left-wingers. Whilst there’s certainly been some exaggeration and misunderstanding about what the laws entail and how they could be applied, my key concern is the danger of embedding bad legal principles in our laws.

I am reminded of this by news from the USA, where a US Senate Committee has refused to endorse President Bush’s latest Bill for trialling terrorist suspects. Instead the Committee has produced its own version which “would require that defendants have access to classified evidence used against them, limit the use of hearsay evidence and restrict the use of evidence obtained by coercion.”

It is concerning enough that such things even need debating, let alone that it is the President of the USA, Leader of the ‘Free World’ and nowadays Australia’s major ally, who is the one trying so hard to prevent such rights being kept in place.

However, we should also realise that such rights are not automatically present in Australia either.

This outcome is also another example of the benefits of a system with less rigid party discipline than Australia’s. According to the report, the Senate Armed Services Committee adopted its position by 15 to 9, with 4 Republicans (including the Chair) joining with 11 Democrats.

As in the Australian Senate, a vote in a Committee does not have the same substantive weight as a vote on the floor of the Chamber (which is the one which actually determines what becomes law and what doesn’t), but the likelihood of Senators voting outside their party bloc is much higher in the USA.

More on the story in this report from the New York Times.

PS This report came to my attention through The Concatenate, a subscriber service which sends regular email updates of political news stories and releases. I thought I’d give it a plug because I’ve found it fairly useful at not much cost.

UPDATE: It is worth noting the assessments in this article that the proposed alternative legislation put forward by the Senate Committee is still “abolishing the writ of habeas corpus.” The habeas corpus writ is the right to challenge your detention and is one of the foundation stones of our system of democracy and the rule of law it is based on. The article has brief summary of the history and significance of habeus corpus, which stems back to the Magna Carta in 1215. “It’s really the fundamental right that protects us against arbitrary arrest and disappearance.”

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  1. Andrew Bartlett:
    There are, too, perfectly rational, pro-government, Liberal-Nationals voting members of the public who are frightened by the ongoing and worsening destruction of what used to be our traditional rights and obligations, of what used to be very effective checks-and-balances against abuse and dishonesty in our systems of law and government. They don’t see their own concerns as a “beat-up”

    These good people are very worried. They know full well that brutal rapacious regimes can come to power through properly conducted elections (as did Hitler). They are fearful that the government which had no hesitation in abolishing habeus corpus and in destroying the presumption of innocence would not think twice about getting rid of freehold title on their properties or about plundering their savings on some pretext or another.

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