Is Frank Brennan really the right person to be heading Kevin Rudd’s national consultation on a charter of rights? Brennan, described by The Australian this morning as a “Jesuit intellectual”, whatever that means, gave a speech yesterday in Melbourne which should provide cause for concern about whether Brennan has already made up his mind about the issue.

Brennan doesn’t like the Victorian Charter of Rights law. He says, according to The Australian’s report of his speech, that “Victoria’s charter of rights had failed its first test by not enforcing a freedom-of-conscience clause in new laws decriminalising abortion that would have excused doctors who objected to performing abortions from referring patients to other doctors they knew did not.”

Brennan is not exactly objective on this issue. He was embroiled last year in a controversial debate over abortion law reform in Victoria, in which he led the Catholic Church’s charge to allow doctors and other medical professionals in Catholic hospitals the right not to have to refer women who want an abortion to a provider of that service. If Brennan’s argument had been successful, it would mean that Catholic hospitals and doctors would be allowed to turn away a desperate woman who wants to have an abortion, simply because they want to put their religious conscience above the woman’s mental and physical health.

Is Brennan’s objectivity over other aspects of the Victorian Charter being clouded by his experience in that bitter debate?

Maybe, considering that he also said yesterday the Victorian Charter was “a device for the delivery of a soft-Left sectarian agenda — a device which will be discarded or misconstrued whenever the rights articulated do not comply with that agenda”. An obscure remark unless one understands Brennan’s clash with Charter advocates last year.

The other aspect of Brennan’s speech yesterday that is mystifying is his snide reference to lawyers’ “evangelical zeal” for a Charter. Lawyers have that zeal for the same reason that doctors have the zeal to cure the sick. It is lawyers who, day in and day out, appear for individuals whose rights are trampled on by the State. Whether it be terrorism suspects, social security recipients who have their payments arbitrarily cut off, detainees who are locked up for 23 hours a day, or people who have their fundamental dignity eroded by the capricious actions of the police or other law enforcement authorities, lawyers understand the need for a greater protection of human rights better than any other group in the community.

Brennan should spend some time at a community legal service, or visit prisoners or asylum seekers and refugees on a regular basis, and then he might get an inkling of why lawyers seek to protect rights with a sense of zeal.

Peter Fray

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