Letters to Eureka Street

The spirit within

Thank you, Gillian Bouras, for a wonderful piece (‘The comforting word’, Eureka Street, March 2005). I was brought up Greek Orthodox, and have found solace in different churches throughout the world. In my travels, I found that there are great cathedrals from whom all spirit has been driven, only to be found in the most unusual and humble structures. Perhaps, in the end, that spirit is housed within us, and the comfort we receive at times of great crisis comes from our faith.

Helen Noakes
Received by email

Washed back again

Thank you. Your piece (‘Out of our depth’, Eureka Street, March 2005) cuts through the political and personal ways we have of satisfying ourselves of the merits of our actions towards those affected by the tsunami, and so ‘freeing’ ourselves to move on to other life concerns and interests.

Would that it were so for Acehians.

You certainly cut through my own sense of merit: I spent January involved in the organisation and presentation of a few ‘tsunami benefit’ events in my central Victorian neighbourhood. I recall feeling personally shocked by the attitude of a friend who, in a mid-January discussion about a forthcoming tsunami benefit, even declared: ‘I just feel all tsunamied out, and I just wonder where the money’s going anyway.’ Outraged I replied quietly: ‘Yes, around the Indian Ocean rim they’re all feeling tsunamied out too!’
Involved as I was, I could lay claim to a righteous merit there.

Just the other day, however, the proverbial boot laced onto the other foot—mine this time. (Not that I had realised it until I read your article.)  We were asked to make up a table for a Karaoke Night, to be hosted by a local amateur theatre club. At a cost of $5 for every song sung. Those proceeds, together with the door sales and other fundraisers, will go to one of the major aid organisations. And my initial, uninhibited reaction, was: ‘Haven’t we done enough? How deep do they think our pockets are? There’ll be nothing left soon to pay our own bills!’

Between January and March something seems to have been washed away in my own heart. Whatever it was, thank you for washing it back again. It’s amazing how even those of us who consider ourselves aware and responsive still need to be brought back to reality at times.

Better a hole in the pocket than a hole in the heart!

Frank Donovan
Woodend, VIC

Political pressure

At page 22 of the essay by Fr Frank Brennan sj concerning recent judicial decisions in Australia and the United Kingdom concerning mandatory detention (Eureka Street, March 2005), Fr Brennan correctly states that the UK House of Lords ‘declared that the law which permitted long-term detention of suspected international terrorists was incompatible with the European Convention’. Earlier in the article, however, it is said that the House of Lords were ‘striking down’ that law.

It is worth noting that the UK Human Rights Act does not give the House of Lords power to ‘strike down’ any law it considers to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. A declaration of incompatibility made by a court under the UK Act has no legal effect on the validity of the legislation in question. Rather, the effect of the declaration is intended to be ‘political’ in the sense that it will place considerable pressure on the executive government and Parliament to bring the legislation into line with the rights set out in the convention. In the case examined by Fr Brennan, the result to date has been that the legislation remains in force, the detainees remain in detention at Belmarsh Prison and the government has proposed an alternative regime of ‘control orders’ to restrict terrorist suspects’ movements, ranging from tagging to house arrest, which have been widely criticised by civil libertarians in the UK.

I do not doubt that Fr Brennan correctly understands the operation of the UK Human Rights Act and my point should not be taken as any criticism of his scholarly and thought-provoking article. Rather, I wish to highlight the rather questionable practical outcome of the House of Lords’ decision, an outcome brought about by the limitation I have described above on the courts’ powers under the UK Act. The courts’ limited powers mean their declarations have no legal effect and may in fact be disregarded by the government. This does nothing for the ‘successful’ litigant and potentially some harm to the standing of the judiciary in the community. Australia’s courts are indeed isolated from their counterparts in other common law countries by not having a comprehensive human rights framework against which to assess the validity of parliamentary legislation and executive action. But in any debate concerning potential human rights instruments in Australia, such as will soon occur in Victoria and, dare I suggest it, perhaps one day at federal level, the proper structure of any such instrument and the powers given to the courts are questions that are as important as desirability and content of a bill of rights.

Alistair Pound
North Melbourne, VIC

Judicial isolation

Alistair Pound is perfectly right. That’s why I made the more subtle remark after saying in the more publicly comprehensible way that the Lords had struck down the legislation.
Alistair and I would agree that the High Court is now isolated in giving universal unreviewable detention the tick while other courts including the House of Lords are able to say that it is inconsistent with the bill of rights regime to which the country subscribes.

Frank Brennan sj
Boston, USA



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