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The wrong signal for Asia’s firing squads

By Tim Goodwin - posted Friday, 17 October 2008

When he was Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd was derided by the Government for his “me too” strategy in the 2007 election campaign, after he promised to implement several Coalition initiatives.

The strategy successfully neutralised areas of government advantage, clearing the air for Labor to focus on key areas of difference such as climate change.

While human rights barely figured in the campaign, it was expected Labor under Rudd would strike a more progressive path, albeit within the limits of his socially conservative outlook. And in the main it has done so, making changes from abolishing temporary protection visas to legislation removing commonwealth discrimination against same sex-couples.


As Attorney-General Robert McClelland said in his prepared speech for a conference at the Melbourne Law School recently: “I think it is fair to say that Australia is ‘back in business’ when it comes to human rights.”

In one critical area of human rights policy, Kevin Rudd has been pursuing business of his own. His takeover of coalition policy on the death penalty was slower than the earlier acquisitions, but no less successful.

Last week he took full control of John Howard’s position and committed to the double standards that will dog him as they dogged his predecessor. This hypocrisy will undermine the Rudd Government’s efforts to save the lives of Australians facing cruel execution overseas.

On Perth radio (October 2), the Prime Minister reacted to the latest reprehensible claims of the three Bali bombers that they were “holy warriors” who had no regrets about the October 2002 bombing which killed 202 people.

He condemned the men, who currently await execution, and said they "deserve the justice that we delivered to them". The following day he said the nature of that justice was a matter for the Indonesians and their justice system.

He claimed the government’s policy was still one of “general opposition” to the death penalty, but the damage was done. No amount of “general opposition” will be meaningful in the face of specific support for particular people to be shot dead.


The Prime Minister’s comments on the issue over two days were vintage Howard. Signal your support for an execution, say you don’t support the death penalty in Australia and will only intervene in the case of Australians under sentence of death, and claim in general terms to be opposed to the death penalty.

Me too, business as usual.

Rudd has even adopted his predecessor’s tactic that the penalty is a matter for the Indonesians. Obviously that is true, but it clearly signals Australia has no objection if that penalty is death.

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About the Author

Tim Goodwin has been involved in the human rights movement for more than 20 years. In 2000 he established Amnesty International Australia's anti-death penalty network, and he was the organisation's spokesperson on the death penalty until 2008. He writes the Asia Death Penaly blog, which hosts about 200 stories on developments in the death penalty in the Asian region.

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