The move this week by New South Wales Attorney-General Greg Smith to pass a law which would force courts to impose life imprisonment without parole on persons convicted of murder of a police officer raises broader questions about how our society values life.
Mr Smith’s move is a major development in a disturbing trend for legislatures in Australia, borrowing from the United States, to pass laws which force courts to punish persons more severely where they inflict physical violence on police officers or emergency service personnel such as ambulance officers.
In Western Australia a law introduced in 2009 forces courts to jail individuals who assault police officers, irrespective of the circumstances of the case. In Queensland and in Tasmania conservative political forces have proposed laws which would impose a mandatory period of imprisonment on a person who assaults not only police officers but ambulance officers and firepersons.
The O’Farrell government’s new law in New South Wales has already sparked lobbying by police unions and their allies for other governments around the nation to follow suit.
It is one thing for judges and magistrates to impose harsher punishment on a person who assaults a police officer who is acting in the course of their duty, but quite another for the legislature to enshrine in statute the idea that the right to personal security of that police officer is somehow more worthy of protection than that of say a 25 year old woman in the suburbs, an Aboriginal person living it rough in central Australia, or a 40 year old male working in a coal mine in Queensland.
The trend in law making towards the latter – that is ‘rating’ the value of human life and wellbeing - undermines the notion, rooted deeply in our society, that all lives are equal.
This idea of equality of life is the very essence of the Judeo-Christian ethic upon which the liberal democratic tradition is based. It is also a universal value reflected nobly in that document borne out of a vision for an end to bloodshed and inequality at the end of World War Two, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” says the first Article of the Declaration.
This objectively unambiguous statement of equality of life is a convenient touchstone for an assessment of how laws such as the New South Wales government’s mandatory life sentence for murder of a police officer undermine human dignity.
How can a legislature in a democratic society be said to be upholding that which is inherent in all of us namely, being equal in “dignity and rights”, when it explicitly says that the death or injury of a police officer or ambulance officer is of greater moment than that of a 80 year old pensioner who is bashed walking home with her weekly shopping?
Are not the dignity and the rights of that 80 year old pensioner being accorded second place behind those of the police or ambulance officer when the legislature says that in the case of the former courts can impose a minimum term of imprisonment whereas in the latter those same courts are hamstrung by having to impose a penalty of the loss of liberty for life without any reprieve? The answer to this question is surely yes.
Or to put it another way, let us say that the 80 year old pensioner is held at gunpoint for hours, raped and then gruesomely stabbed to death and the person convicted of her murder receives a minimum term of 25 years. The police officer on the other hand is shot with one bullet in a short battle with a gunman. The gunman receives life imprisonment without parole. Is such an outcome respecting the dignity and rights of the 80 year old pensioner? The answer to this question is surely no.
There is another aspect to the notion that a legislature in a democracy should be in the business of ‘weighting’ lives according to occupation or position in society and it is the ‘slippery slope’ argument.
Where does one draw the line in removing the discretion of our courts to ensure justice to parties in accordance with the principle that all human life is of equal value? If there were for example a spate of assaults or murders of doctors or teachers, will our legislatures rush to extend the mandatory term of imprisonment approach? If they are to be intellectually consistent (albeit on the back of a deeply and irredeemably flawed premise) then they must give consideration to such a plan because the argument is the same – these are front line servants of the community who must be protected just as we protect police and firepersons.
Those in the New South Wales Parliament who intend to vote in favour of the O’Farrell government’s mandatory life term for police killers, and those lawmakers in other jurisdictions who favour similar laws, are not only wrongly tying the hands of the institution whose role it is to dispense justice according to the rule of law, but they are also giving a dangerous green light to the idea that some lives are worth more than others in a democracy.