04 December 2008

The Policy policy, and a Bill of Rights

When my kids were in school, I noticed an interesting phenomenon that went something like this: Headmaster: No, your kids can't be being bullied. We have a policy against bullying. I came to call this the "Policy policy": so long as there's a Policy in place for some longstanding problem, action is unnecessary and complainants can be silenced by reference to the Policy. The Sydney Morning Herald is reporting that the present government (AKA the Clean Feed Censorship Party) wants to establish a Bill of Rights in Australia to protect citizens against laws that are unconstitutional and against said Bill. I can only see this as misdirection, and a pure instance of the Policy policy. After all, we have seen no infringement of rights in the UK (the most surveilled nation on the planet, death for looking like a terrorist) or the US (Gitmo, extraordinary rendition, police home invasion, Taser deaths...) because they have such Bills. Look, a Bill of Rights is a nice idea. It may even have some positive effects on legislative excesses, like attempts to restrict marriage to straights (how's that working in the US right now, by the way?). But it won't stop a government like the Clean Feed Censorship Party from being able to circumvent liberties to achieve something For the Children (i.e., for the bureaucrats and their ministers) if they want to do so. The only thing that prevents that is citizen activism, speaking out against these restrictions on freedom. Hat tip: Sam D at Philosophy Hurts Your Head

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3 comments:

Ian H Spedding said...

Policies are like corporate mission statements: good intentions at best, total bullshit at worst.

Bills of Rights, like any other legislation, are not worth the paper they're written on unless people are willing to stand up and enforce them. But I still say that statutory rights are a lot easier to assert and defend than presumptive ones.

If I were prosecuted in the UK for wearing a T-shirt that said "Bollocks to Blair", I would feel a lot more confident about my defence being able to cite Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights than relying on some more nebulous concept derived from common law precedents, assuming such exists.

You're right, though, that ultimately the only thing preventing right-wing power-grabbers doing an end-run around rights legislation is the willingness of the rest of us to tell them to go stuff themselves.

Sam D said...

Thanks for the hat-tip John.

I sincerely hope that any Bill of Rights we end up with does actually provide citizens with additional protection from government. But I cannot believe that any party would willingly give up any power,unless the show of doing so served some other purpose. Perhaps it's simply to function as a "policy policy" and reassure us when we suspect our freedoms are under threat. Or perhaps it is to curtail the actions of future Coalition governments. Time, I'm afraid to say, will tell.

John S. Wilkins said...

Ian, while I agree they are not a bad idea, I do not think they are necessarily a good one. Bills of Rights have this tendency like all law to be black letter interpreted - if the wording can be interpreted in a particular way, then other interpretations tend to be excluded. In the end, it is the courts, not the law, that assigns the rights, and under common law this means rights can evolve. But nothing will protect our rights if we fail to defend them.