Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

ADJOURNMENT: Death Penalty

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (21:00): On 2 December 2005, my friend Ruth Webber-a former senator in this place from Western Australia-and I joined a candlelit vigil outside the High Commission of Singapore in Canberra. We silently acknowledged the death of Van Tuong Nguyen, a 25-year-old Australian man who was executed at that time for drug smuggling. His death was preceded by widespread international diplomacy, letters, mail and petitions calling for clemency, as well as a wider protest around the whole issue of the death penalty. Naturally, it seems that those efforts failed in that case.

This month, two more Australian citizens are facing execution for drug smuggling, this time in Indonesia. Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan were sentenced in 2006 and have been advised that all legal options have been concluded, and that sometime this month-72 hours before the scheduled time-they will be told that they will face a firing squad. These young men have lived with this reality for over seven years-and not just these young men: their families, their friends and people who have shared with them so much of their lives.

Again, this decision has caused extensive lobbying through the Australian government, church leaders and Amnesty International. There have been approaches to the Indonesian government, calling again for clemency. In none of these calls has there been any denial of the seriousness of the crime. There has been no attempt to pretend that they were not serious issues that were covered by Indonesian law. But, again, it was the wider issue that has been focused by these two particular young men; people have paused to think about the issue of the death penalty itself.

This issue of the death penalty has been discussed in our own nation for many years. In our own country in the 19th century, as many as 80 people were hanged each year for crimes that ranged from burglary and sheep stealing-that was a big one-to forgery, as well as for murder and manslaughter. This was our law. My own state of Queensland was the first state to actually abolish the death penalty for all crimes in July 1922. In a very close vote, 33 to 30, Queensland Attorney-General, Mr Mullan, from the seat of Flinders, convinced the parliament to accept an amendment to the Criminal Code which stated:

The sentence of punishment by death shall no longer be pronounced or recorded, and the punishment of death shall no longer be inflicted.

The arguments across the chamber-and they were tough-reflected many of the same discussions I have heard in the last few weeks on local talkback radio, in the media and in conversations with people as the sentences in Indonesia became clearer. Punishment versus deterrent; making the punishment fit the crime. What would you do if your family were victims, or a friend? What must we do to protect our society? All these issues, bouncing back and forth-and everybody is an expert.

I have actually read in the debate from 1922 that my namesake, a Mr Moore from Aubigny, was particularly strong in his view that the death penalty was an important deterrent. He said, 'If the people feel that the governments are not prepared to inflict a remedy that fits the crime, the public will have to take their affairs into their own hands. The government should uphold the law.'

Eleven years earlier, a gentleman by the name of Vincent Bernard Lesina-known as Joe-who was the member for Clermont in Queensland-an extraordinary man-actually was a voice that called for reason in the debate around punishment. He believed that the issue around the death penalty was wrong. In a passionate speech in a previous debate around the Criminal Code in the Queensland government he said that he would like to see the issues of death and punishment actually focused on in the parliament, that the work of people:

… and that of their followers, has raised the moral tone of society … tonight I can appeal for the abolition of the last vestiges of punishment by mutilation-the lash and the gallows. I would like to see them abolished. We have excellent precedents from the other countries of the civilised world… I am opposed to these punishments because they are forms of mutilation and they are altogether foreign to civilised ideas of punishment… Our punishment today is largely punitive instead of being reformative. Instead of hanging criminals we should place them in correctional institutions.

He went on to make an inspirational speech. Unfortunately, at that time he was very much a lone voice in parliament. But over the next years in Queensland, a number of cases appeared which brought the community into the debate which we needed to have. There was widespread outrage about a number of key cases, which caused people to meet and to actually express their views to the government-to tell their Queensland government that they wanted the law changed. The government should impose the law, but the law should be changed to ensure that there was more consideration and compassion-that we remove the issues around the death penalty.

That was in 1922. Many laws have passed since that time. We know in Australia that all states now have abolished the death penalty. The last person to be executed in our country was in 1967. I can remember that; I was very young. I can remember black-and-white television coverage in our living room of scenes outside the Pentridge Prison. And my family were angry. They were angry because they believed it was wrong. They believed that a life was being taken just as much by the state as by whatever crime that person had committed. And their anger continued to agitate, and the way that happened was through institutions which we respect-institutions around the Catholic Church.

Today we have a group in Queensland which continues to meet and it is partly sponsored by the Australian Coalition against the Death Penalty and partly by Catholic Social Justice. This group has been called together because they care, and one of the reasons they care is that Chris and Lee Rush are members of that community. You may remember that their son Scott was part of the same group who were sentenced by Indonesian law and sentenced to death. It was only through extraordinary legal efforts that that particular sentence was commuted to a prison sentence. Chris and Lee live every day with what is happening in Indonesian jails. As you will remember, it was Mr Rush who told the Australian Federal Police about the drug plan. Telling the Australian police about what was going to happen ended with Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, who are seemingly going to be executed in a few days or a few months.

That will happen because it is the law. Many countries have changed the law to ensure that no longer is the death penalty seen as a fitting end to a crime. We know that on 20 November 2012 Australia was among a record 110 countries which backed a resolution to be voted on every two years at the United Nations General Assembly, calling for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide-not selectively, but the abolition of the death penalty. We get caught up in talking about wider legal aspects. I listen to the words of Lee and Christine Rush, who talk about how their son could have been with Andrew and Myuran now. We need to work not selectively-we cannot take a case and say that is wrong or particularly say that, just because these young men in Indonesia are Australian citizens, they should have special treatment.

We should work to try to make sure that no country sees the death penalty as an appropriate result or an appropriate law. We can change the law-we can-and it has happened before. I will be at more candlelight vigils. The Department of Foreign Affairs has said another 12 Australians are on death rows in various countries as we speak. We know the numbers of countries that execute their citizens for a wide range of crimes-just as we did in the 19th century-but each one of us has the ability to work together to raise awareness. If it is through candlelight vigils that people share the experience, so be it, but it needs to be in parliaments, in diplomacy, at the United Nations so we can point out exactly the same messages as Joe Lesina in the Queensland parliament in 1899. We can change the law and we can make the law more compassionate.