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Questioning the death penalty

By Brett Bowden - posted Tuesday, 6 December 2005

I was recently at a conference marking the 60th anniversary of the commencement of the Nuremberg war crimes trials at which Sir Ninian Stephen, a former justice of the High Court and governor-general of Australia, suggested that recent public sentiment in Australia indicated that we had turned our back on the death penalty for good.

Sir Ninian was, of course, referring to the outpouring of sentiment and diplomatic appeals that accompanied the approaching execution of convicted drug trafficker and Australian citizen, Nguyen Tuong Van, who was hanged in Singapore on December 2. Unfortunately, I am not sure that I share Sir Ninian’s confidence in the Australian people.

I suspect, rather, it is more the case that Australians are not exactly overjoyed at the thought of a foreign government executing one of their own. I further suspect and fear that if the question of the death penalty were put to the Australian people via referendum there is a very good chance that it would be reintroduced. Thankfully that is unlikely to happen; both sides of politics oppose the death penalty as a matter of policy.


Nevertheless, in the wake of the Bali bombing and the subsequent death penalty issued against Bali bomber Amrozi, in August 2003, Prime Minister John Howard said on Melbourne radio that while he did not support capital punishment, he knows a lot of people who do.

The PM said: “I know lots of Australians who believe that a death penalty is appropriate and they are not barbaric, they’re not insensitive, they’re not vindictive, they’re not vengeful, they’re people who believe that if you take another’s life deliberately then justice requires that your life be taken.” Notably, at no time did the prime minister ask Indonesia not to impose the death penalty on Amrozi.

When the prime minister was asked in December 2003, following the capture of Saddam Hussein, if he would support the imposition of the death penalty on the former Iraqi dictator, he replied: “If it were imposed, absolutely”.

One does not require too much imagination to conjure up an emotive scenario in which a populist appeal for the reintroduction of capital punishment in Australia would be greeted with cheers of support. If the death penalty was to be reintroduced in Australia it would have to be at the behest of the states. Capital punishment was abolished by the Federal Government with the Death Penalty Abolition Act of 1973.

Queensland was the first of the states to abolish the death penalty in 1922. NSW was the last to do so in 1985. Although it had abolished the death penalty for murder in 1955, treason and piracy remained punishable by death up until the passing of the Crimes Amendment (Death Penalty Abolition) Act 1985.

By a strange twist of fate or timing, on November 30, the United States carried out its 1,000th execution since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. The condemned man was one Robin Lovitt whose attorney was the high-profile Kenneth Starr, one-time bane of the Clinton administration and now Dean of Pepperdine University School of Law.


Even in the US support for the death penalty is on the slide, its advocates are at an all time low since it was reintroduced. It would be a great shame, then, if Australia was to even contemplate reintroducing capital punishment in the wake of some sort of devastating attack or seditious act on our soil, and in doing so, forget the outpouring of sentiment and sound argument opposed to the needless killing of Nguyen Tuong Van.

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A shorter version was first published in The Canberra Times on December 1, 2005.

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About the Author

Brett Bowden is a Professor of History and Politics at Western Sydney University.

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