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2012 - time for civil libertarians to grow up or fade out

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The abject failure of Labor's 'humane' refugee policy and the victory by Australia and the West over terrorism has exposed the babyish fallacy of a fanatical adherence to human rights that is upheld by civil libertarians. In the end, the only principle is that there is no principle – the only thing that matters is achieving good consequences.

It was only until recently that civil libertarian were declaring that the terrorists had already won, in response to the Howard government's supposedly tough counter-terrorism laws which included control orders, detention without trial and increased surveillance powers for police. The Left declared that these laws were supposedly undemocratic and threatened our way of life.

History shows that this was pure nonsense. The laws were a measured response to an evil new threat. They have proven to be a spectacular success. There has not been a single terrorist fatality in Australia. And this is not through a lack of trying. More than 20 fanatical people have been convicted of planning terrorist events. They were all stopped because the Howard government had the sense to give police enhanced new powers, which infringed trivial rights such as the privacy of suspected criminals. The only 'price' paid by normal citizens was waiting longer to get through security at airports.


Similar laws in the United States and United Kingdom have had the same success. In order to crush terrorism, the US has even resorted to more extreme measures such as waterboarding terrorists to gather information regarding future planned attacks and committing the most egregious rights violation possible in summarily murdering Osama bin Laden.

According to the Left such measures would 'spell the end of our hard won civil liberties' and 'corrupt democracy'. The empirical evidence shows such claims were rubbish. We are as free as at any time in history and the counter-terrorisms laws have resulted in no abuses of rights. Rights fanatics will of course desperately invoke the wrongful arrest of Dr Mohomad Haneef, but in reality this highlights the success of the laws.

All laws result in some innocent people being charged or arrested. Moreover, Dr Haneef was compensated for his detention – a 'right' which has never been accorded by terrorists organisations to the thousands of victims they have murdered over the past decade.

The failings of left ideology are even more stark when it comes to refugee policy. In 2007 the architect of the 'Pacific solution' Philip Ruddock was labelled a toxic monster. In hindsight he is a strategic compassionate genius. His policy of temporary protection visas and offshore processing reduced the boats to a trickle (one per year) and emptied out the detention centres – there were four people left when Labor took power.

Four years later, the Labor party is presiding over the most shambolic, expensive and cruel refugee policy in history. It costs the community $100,000 to process each boat arrival, people are drowning on route to Australia, the detention centres are over-crowded and so many people are coming by boat that soon all of the 13,750 refugee places that Australian grants annually will be taken by people who have thousands of dollars to pay people smugglers, snuffing out any chance that the genuinely desperate 15 million people waiting in refugee camps have of over ever arriving to our opulent shores.

So in 2012 will the civil libertarians accept the error of their ways and apologise to the community for the nonsense they have inflicted on our children? Not likely, yet there is something to learned from identifying the basic flaws in their ideology, so that we can cut through their cultish ramblings in the future.


Civil libertarians are slaves to notions of 'rights'. The like rights because they are individualising claims and seem to give us a protective sphere. But rights of the absolute type which are spruiked by civil libertarians are nonsense.

The key to rights is identifying the circumstances in which they can be limited and extending them to all people equally, while maintaining a distinction between the innocent and wretched.

Civil libertarians dish out rights to the guilty and innocent alike and suffer from moral short-sightedness. They focus only on the immediate person, as opposed to wider consequences and the likely effect of policies on other individuals.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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