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Posturing over the death penalty

By Philip Lillingston - posted Monday, 11 May 2015

While not denying that negligence can still be a crime, it is sickening that two young Australian drug mules traffickers,Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, have paid with their lives for a crime where there was malice directed at no one.

However when our Foreign Minister considered diplomatic sanctions, our Prime Minister vowed to "find ways to make our displeasure felt" and Senator Gary Humphries, declared death penalty abolition was the "…hallmark of a civilised society…", it was also sickening. That Australia's political leaders and prominent commentators could attempt to attain mercy for the two, not by humble entreaties based upon the friendship and mutual respect with our neighbour, but by high-handed lecturing about its allegedly less than civilised practices, with the obvious implication that Indonesia still had not made it into that club of first-world enlightened nations.

What is galling is that our 'leaders' have the temerity to lecture on behalf of the Australian people, despite the fact that the majority of those people have no problem with what Indonesia did, as shown by earlier polls and confirmed in January 2015 by Roy Morgan Research.


So why all the outcry about this ultimate state punishment? At the height of the rhetoric our prime minister declared the practice was "…pretty barbaric…", but without bothering to define the term and explain how it described a judicial death sentence. Are executioners bare foot, unkempt, long haired Vandals, who perform their work in public in front of baying drunken mobs? Apparently all you have to do is declare it is barbaric and nothing more needs to be said.

The Australian newspaper did at least give a reason to support its position. There is a sanctity of human life which must in all situations be respected, it said on the 30th April. Well, tell that to a terminally ill patient wishing to buy a lifesaving kidney from a living donor willing to sell. This matter-of-life-or-death transaction cannot proceed because the government, in its benevolent wisdom, has made all such transactions illegal due to the "questionably morality" of the practice. Apparently the sanctity of life extends to child rapists and terrorist bombers, but not to some law abiding citizen vainly trying to save his or her own life.

The only commentator who did, in his own way, attempt to explain how the term 'barbaric' fitted, was broadcaster Alan Jones on the televised Q&A program when he declared, "To think that you justify punishment by murder -statutory murder- means quite frankly that the barbarians are at the gate."

Even though this sentiment has also been expressed by Greens MP Colleen Hartland and former Foreign Minister Bob Carr, it is difficult to fathom how this hyperbolic statement, described by the Melbourne Age's crime reporter John Silvester as "bordering on the idiotic", relates to a democratically governed state carrying out a death sentence.

Is the state also a thief when collecting speeding fines, or guilty of kidnapping / false imprisonment when jailing convicted home invaders? Words have specific meaning, and unless you are writing poetry there is no justification for using an incorrect, but more emotive, word instead of what is appropriate.

Murder can be defined as the intentional killing of an innocent (in the context of the situation) person, with malice aforethought. Does the state really do that? What the state does is kill, after due process, what it declares an extremely antisocial human being for, what it believes are, reasons of protecting and comforting society. The fact that two courses of action have the same result of a warm corpse does not necessarily mean that they are morally equivalent. One suspects the way Moses drafted his sixth commandment should take some responsibility for this simplistic interpretation of the death penalty. Could he have not gone to the trouble of differentiating between malevolent, and other types of killing?


Civil Liberties Australia, together with other rights' organisations, wrote to the Indonesian Ambassador hoping to stop the execution, claiming it was a violation of "...the right to life…" as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An identical claim is sometimes presented by self-described 'liberal' politicians quoting documents such as the American Declaration of Independence, which, in following the teachings of philosopher John Locke, held we "…are endowed with certain unalienable rights…" such as "…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…".

Both these documents not only declare the right to life but also that of liberty (the above mentioned UDHR at its article #3). So if allegedly our right to life can never be removed by the state, then does it not follow that our right to liberty is also inalienable? In which case how would the state punish criminals without incarcerating them: arrange a two hour intervention with family and friends after every conviction of rape or murder?

Fathers of Classic Liberalism from the Enlightenment, John Locke and John Stuart Mill, both supported the death penalty, and their attitude to civil rights was simply that citizens possess them, but only while their behaviour remains civil, and beyond that they forfeit them to the degree they violate the rights of others.

Yes there is also the argument that, in practice, the state is imperfect and innocents may occasionally be executed, but then there is the reverse side to this. Between 1973 and 2009 in Australia, a number of children were sexually assaulted, one woman was raped and three other people murdered, in separate, unrelated incidents, by an Eric Thomas Turner and a Leigh Robinson, both of whom were earlier on death row for previous capital crimes but, unfortunately for the community, had their sentences commuted before eventually being released.

Australia, which is a small country needing to maintain good diplomatic, security and trade relations among its larger, democratic, death penalty neighbours of Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, India and the United States, is playing a precarious game in its hectoring and condescending attitude based upon suspect principles. If we are to follow different sentencing programs we should be diplomatic enough to keep our comments to ourselves. To save our citizens from off-shore gallows we can flavour our diplomatic entreaties with respect and proffered friendship, something which just may have a more beneficial result than condescension, derision and threats.

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About the Author

Philip Lillingston, has previously taught political science and now maintains the website Why Not Proportional Representation?

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