It’s time once again for us to consider the delightful smorgasbord of unfortunate opinions, charming idealism, delicious eccentricity, lateral thinking, and, occasionally, surprisingly good policy that is the tiny parties running for election in the Australian Senate. (And, lest that sentence really sounds far too sarcastic, I should point out that it’s rare to find a tiny party that has no good ideas at all. Even the most racist, chauvinistic and mildly unhinged parties will generally have one or two areas in which they display good sense, and sometimes even brilliance. One day, I should start a party that compiles all the weird good bits from tiny parties’ policies…)
To kick off this joyous carnival of political diversity, we have none other than Derryn Hinch, and his brand new party, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party.
Take a moment to appreciate the name of this party.
And now, take a moment to consider the level of maturity that is displayed daily for our delectation by Members of Parliament during question time.
I think we can all agree that Derryn Hinch, with his characteristic cry of ‘Shame, shame, shame’ would be an ornament to this august body. Personally, I’d like to see him as speaker.
(Incidentally, I am delighted to note that Hinch himself is running in Victoria, which means I could actually vote for him and do my bit to make this vision to come true…)
But let us set aside, for a moment, this frivolity, and have a look at what Hinch’s party wants us to know about itself and what it represents.
The party slogan is ‘It’s Just Common Sense’. I’m not really old enough to remember much about Hinch (my family had rules about watching commercial TV), but this sounds characteristic. Their front page tells me what they stand for:
- Justice in sentencing
- Bail reform
- Parole reform
- Domestic violence law reform
- Animal justice
- Public register of convicted sex offenders
- Voluntary euthanasia
The candidates for this party have an interesting range of backgrounds, including a former policeman, a survivor of sexual abuse (and the author of this petition), a former nurse and foster mother, and an animal rights activist. A nice change from the usual batch of lawyers, and there is some good diversity of experience there.
The main focus of the JP is clearly reforming the criminal justice system to be tougher on sex offenders. I will get to this shortly, but I’d like to start by quickly looking at what he says on other topics, because I have to say, some of these policies are waaay to the left of what I was expecting. I’m not sure why – perhaps because ‘tough on crime’ often links in with a lot of other fairly right wing views. Is Hinch unusual in this, or is this a reflection of where the mainstream has shifted over the last few years?
On Equality, we have a lovely rainbow all over Hinch’s face and the simple slogan ‘Equality. It’s a human right.’ In case that wasn’t clear enough, Hinch is pro-marriage equality. He is also pro-equal pay and equal reward, regardless of someone’s colour, creed or sexuality. Because – and I have a feeling I’m going to be seeing this phrase a lot – “It’s just common sense”. Go, Darryn! (And as for you, Malcolm Turnbull, Shame, shame, shame!)
On the page on Animal Justice, we are exhorted to End the Cruelty, and learn that Hinch is a long-time supporter of Greenpeace, is anti-live export (since the 1980s), and has been writing about and joining protests over animal cruelty all over the world since the 1970s. This is quite a pedigree, and it will be interesting to see where the Greens and Animal Justice put the JP on their How To Vote cards. I’d note that while these are all good things to protest, he does seem to favour the more dramatic end of the scale here, in keeping with his larger-than-life persona.
(And at this point, I feel as though I should add a disclaimer. I seem to be rather biased against Hinch, and feel as though I am not representing him entirely fairly. I don’t actually know why this is, but please do take this review with a grain of salt.)
On Voluntary Euthanasia, we learn that Hinch is a fan of Philip Nitschke, a pro-euthanasia advocate who is controversial for, among other things, publishing a euthanasia handbook online. Nitschke also feels that euthanasia should be available to elderly people who are afraid of becoming ill and incapacitated, not just the terminally ill. Hinch himself talks about nursing his mother through her final illness, commenting that “If she had been a dog, and an RSPCA inspector had walked in and seen her like that, I would have faced a cruelty to animals charge”. Given Hinch’s feelings about cruelty to animals, this looks like a pretty strongly held opinion.
But, while these are all important issues, they are not the main focus of the JP. On the ‘About’ page, the JP lays it out like this:
In Australia, in recent years, it has seemed that our courts are more concerned with the welfare of convicted criminals than their victims. We believe the punishment should fit the crime.
Under community pressure, politicians have increased maximum sentences for some violent crimes but they are rarely imposed. Even minimum sentences are not honoured.
If our bail, parole, AVOs and supervision orders were tightened, victims like Jill Meagher, Daniel Morcombe, Masa Vukotic, Sarah Cafferkey, Fiona Warzywoda, Sharon Siermans, Luke Batty, Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson, might still be alive.
Like Peter Finch’s character in Network members of the Justice Party are saying: ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’
The page then goes on to talk about Hinch’s history of being jailed for publicly naming pedophiles and sex offenders, including 50 days in jail ‘for published comments about the Jill Meagher rape/murder case.’
Look, Hinch clearly has the courage of his convictions, and I do respect that. But the reason he got in trouble over the Jill Meagher case was that he wrote publicly about Bayley’s criminal history before the case had been closed. There are laws that do not allow jurors to take someone’s previous convictions for a similar offense into account when deciding on their guilt or innocence in a trial. Personally, I am not convinced that these are good laws. But the fact is that they do exist, and breaching them can mean a mis-trial or a re-trial. If Hinch wants to make sure Bayley goes to jail and stays there, the last thing he should be doing is giving him more ways to fight a conviction on the grounds that the trial was biased against him.
In fact, he would be far more effective if he got somewhere that he can work towards reforming these laws… like, say, the Senate…
Let’s see what Hinch’s idea of a criminal justice looks like…
On Justice in Sentencing, we are told that sentences for violent crimes should reflect community views. To do this, the JP would like to reduce the influence of precedence in the appeals court. The logic behind this is that if someone in similar circumstances has appealed successfully before, then it’s harder for a judge not to grant the next appeal, leading to shorter and shorter sentences. I’d love to hear a lawyer’s opinion on this one, as it sounds reasonably convincing from here, but I don’t know enough about how sentencing works to comment.
Currently, an offender’s right to freedom outweighs the safety of the community. Our police, in trying to protect us, are routinely exposed to dangerous recidivist violent offenders, and they shouldn’t be. These criminals ought to be behind bars.
We say, putting the violent criminals first and the community’s safety second is an unacceptable risk. If longer sentences were imposed for violent crimes, Australia would be a much safer country to live.
It’s just common sense.
(I sense a theme here…)
The JP also wants to reform bail. Interestingly, the example given is the Sydney Lindt Café siege, which is presented – I think quite accurately – as a failure of our bail system (how on earth does someone get bail when they are accused of being an accessory for murder and also for 40 sexual assaults on eight women? Honestly, I’m with Hinch on this one.) The JP wants to remove the right for bail in cases where someone has been charged with committing an indictable offence involving an act of violence, ‘particularly if that person is already on bail for other offences or has a history of violence or threats.’
Look, bail was invented by Richard III, and I’m a big fan of Richard III, but on this occasion, I feel that the JP has a point. Bail for violent offenses, with a history of violence, is dangerous.
(Also, on an unrelated note, this is the first time I’ve seen the Sydney Lindt Café siege discussed in a political context. I doubt it will be the last. It will be interesting to see who thinks it is about failures of our criminal justice system, who thinks it is about domestic violence, and who thinks it is just about Muslims. Let’s keep an eye on that one…)
Given the previous two points, you will not be surprised to hear that the JP also wants Parole to be tougher. People who breach their parole need to have it revoked. This time, Hinch points to the cases of Jill Meagher and Masa Vukotic. We also have just a little a whiff of conspiracy theory here:
Since Jill Meagher’s murder and after Masa Vukotic was stabbed 49 times there have been some parole board reforms. But in September 2015 — before the inquest into the murder of Sarah Cafferkey by a recent parolee who had killed before — the coroner suppressed from public scrutiny the guidelines the parole board followed when releasing prisoners.
All conspiracies aside, I actually agree with the JP about this one, too. This is weird and unexpected. But also nice, because I’ll have to read about the Australian Liberty Alliance sooner or later, and it’s good to keep some hope in my heart…
The JP wants law reform around domestic violence. At this stage, it’s more of a motherhood statement and not a policy in itself, so you might want to check back closer to the election. Based on their views about parole and bail, I’d hazard a guess that the JP wants to be tougher on repeat offenders and give restraining orders more teeth.
Last of all, we come to what I think of as Hinch’s flagship policy – a public register of convicted sex offenders.
We want a public register because sexual predators rely on anonymity. It is one of their most powerful weapons — especially against children. In many child abuse cases, the child victim is told ‘this is a secret’. Anyone could be a sexual predator, which makes it extremely hard to protect yourself and your family.
This is one where I have really mixed feelings. I think they are trying to do the right thing the wrong way. The register would include ‘the offender’s photo, name and aliases, crime (as in sexual assault of an adult / sexual assault of a child (under 18yrs, under 10), offender’s address, year in which they committed the crime. Note: It would not include: the relationship between the victim and the offender, or, any details that could identify a victim, or, any facts of the case.’
Unfortunately, I think that with the rest of that information publicly available, it could become relatively easy to identify a victim. To me, this is a big problem.
In an attempt to mitigate against two of the biggest potential pitfalls of this policy, the JP adds that judges would have discretion so that things like ‘sexting’ between teenagers wouldn’t put you on the register, and that vigilante behaviour would result in criminal prosecutions.
This is, again, something that I think would work better in theory than in practice. One can carry out a lot of harrassment of someone without getting in too much trouble with the law (especially if the law knows that you are a sex offender and turns a blind eye). And I would think that someone who feels strongly enough to engage in vigilante behaviour in the first place is unlikely to be particularly deterred by being told it is illegal.
I think my issue with this is that, if the other policies get up, you don’t need this one (conversely, if they don’t, then this one is far more tolerable). If you have longer sentencing, reduced bail eligibility and strict parole, then you have a situation where offenders are in prison for a long time. Putting them on a public register after they get out seems to extend their sentence indefinitely, in an extrajudicial setting.
I’m torn. On the one hand, current evidence suggests that sex offenders don’t tend to reform. And we really don’t do a good job, at present, of keeping people safe from attack by recidivists. On the other hand, social shunning is hardly going to help (especially if they are, actually, trying to reform). Also, on a purely practical level, what are these convicted felons going to live on once they are out of jail? I can’t imagine any employer not doing a quick check of the register before employing someone, if it was publicly available. I don’t think making people more desperate and isolated is going to make them into saner, safer individuals.
I’d be in favour, I think, of law reforms that really took into account someone’s likelihood of reoffending, even if that meant keeping people in jail past their original sentence. But once someone has done their time and has also convinced the parole board of their safety, they should be able to have a clean slate, at least as far as the public is concerned (the police, in fact, already have access to a register of sex offenders – it just isn’t public. You can read a bit about it here). Otherwise, you might as well keep them in jail for life – in fact, it would probably be kinder to do so. And perhaps that is something we should be considering. But that is another argument entirely.
Overall, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party isn’t so much a political party as a crusade. It’s a pretty good crusade – I agree with a surprising amount of what it stands for – and it’s nice to see someone so mainstream espousing marriage equality – but it is, by and large a single issue party. Economics, the environment, education, and other things beginning with ‘E’ are all ignored. (This is where I rather miss group voting tickets, which might give me a better idea of where the JP stands on these issues!) But if you want to make a statement about sentencing without accidentally supporting bigots, you could do worse than to give Derryn & co your vote.