MEETING REPORTS, MAY and JUNE 2007

 

 
 

May 11 2007

"VOX POPULI"

THE PEOPLE'S VOICE

 Speaker: Mark Parnell M.L.C.

In March 2006, at the last State Election, Mark Parnell became the first member of the Australian Greens Party to win a Seat in the South Australian State Parliament. Last September Mark introduced his first Private Member's Bill -"The Protection of Public Participation Bill" - to the S.A. Legislative Council for its first reading. A Press Release issued in December was headed "Greens to put brakes on bullying developers,' and stated the main aim of his Bill was "to prevent developers from using the legal system to intimidate citizens exercising their right to free speech." Stated another way, a principal intention behind this Bill, will be to provide legal protection for persons engaging in public debate on public interest issues, "by preventing the use of SLAPPS", a term standing for Strategic litigation Against Public Participation.

A SLAPP suit is formally defined as a civil lawsuit brought in relation to a political issue which has the effect of silencing community debate or constraining political activity; usually by way of threatening lawyers' letters followed by legal writs, alleging such things as defamation, huge losses of earnings, etc. etc. Our Speaker lamented what he called, a growing trend for developers in recent decades, to resort to using legal intimidation tactics in order to inhibit or stifle debate, and he pointed to a number of real-life examples, including the "Gunns 20'1 case over woodchipping of native forests in Tasmania which has attracted considerable publicity.

Imagine the following scenario: A large warehouse building right across the street from where you and other residents live, changes the nature of its operations to become a manufacturing site. The products being manufactured create some very unpleasant fumes that may contain various toxins and chemicals. These fumes are expelled via a large chimney stack that carry directly across to yours and neighbour's homes, polluting the general air and severely affecting the quality of life for residents in its path. Eventually, and only after many frustrations with residents' complaints and enquiries seemingly getting nowhere, This issue gets some coverage in the local Press.: Pit of a mild report which doesn't take a real look at serious health consequences from the pollution. This fires up you and one of your neighbours, to write a vigorous letter to the newspaper going into explicit detail on the health problems, and raising serious questions about lack of action from various governmental authorities.

Then one day, you and your neighbour receive by special delivery, an unpleasant letter from the Company's lawyers threatening writs for defamation and potentially huge monetary damages unless, within 7 days, you both fully comply with stipulated demands for a full public apology and complete retraction of all criticisms made. The date - Xmas Eve and the lawyers are demanding response by 29th December! Hardly any sort of reasonable time period for you to be able to access independent legal advice as to your options in this situation. The threatened legal writs then ensue, you and your neighbour have to deal with potentially severe-stress of undergoing legal process, imagined nightmares of having to sell your homes to meet huge legal costs until such time you obtain separate legal advice and support, showing your fears are largely groundless. As our Speaker pointed out. - a classic example of SLAPP tactics when a civil lawsuit is brought primarily for the purpose of silencing community debate on a matter of public interest.

.Mark told us he had a background of 16 years working in the non-government, non-profit, conservation sector: two years in the Wilderness Society, four years with the Australian Conservation Foundation, and the last 10 years in the Environmental Defenders Office (or EDO), The latter Mark described as being an environmental legal service provided by the community with only a small amount of Govt. funding as part of the legal aid system. With his role as a public interest community lawyer Mark provided a free service to members of the community who wanted to use the law to protect the environment. For example: -Conservation groups wanting to challenge inappropriate development; individuals who might be the victims of industrial pollution in their neighbourhood; groups or individuals who were concerned on such issues as native vegetation or management of National Parks.

Environmental Defenders Office was being run on a "shoestring budget" according to our. Speaker, and needed to do fund raising. like other community groups, in order to operate effectively and to mount a court cases for environmental campaigns deserving of support. ,A further restriction in recent years is that the EDO is no longer allowed to use any 1 part of legal aid funding to engage in litigation or any court work. Mark said that had come about due to intense pressure from conservative political elements who weren't too happy about the effectiveness of legal campaigns conducted by EDO's in other States such as the large protest against the Hinchinbrook Marina development in Queensland. However they had also gotten considerable support from the community at large, including establishment figures like judges, presidents of law societies, QC's, who had "gone into bat" for them and ensured some ongoing Govt. funding.

This was all very much an issue of freedom of speech and people's democratic rights to engage in public interest issues without having to fear legal harassment via unsavoury tactics like SLAPPS. Mark pointed out the call for law reform in this area was not just coming from the Greens or him, but also had the strong support of some of the most prominent lawyers in Australia who issued a statement of major concern in 2006. Part of that statement referred to "these lawsuits against public participation (creating) enormous stress and financial burden for the people and groups who are sued and (clogging) court systems with arguments (belonging) in political rather than legal arenas."

Specific legislation to protect the community's right to public debate and participation, has already been introduced in several American States and Canada. Mark stated he would. be committed to doing all that he could during his parliamentary term, to have his Bill passed into law. He pointed out the alternative if society didn't act on this issue, that we were in danger of just becoming "passive citizens" sitting at home in front of our TV sets, not daring to venture out and engage with issues of public importance, or to take part in democratic protest activity because of the fear of litigation.

Mark gave interesting, and sometimes amusing, details about various court cases, showing in some instances that the Law really could be an ass at times. In response to several audience questions he also went into detail about what could actually constitute defamation as against just being legitimate criticism of companies or individuals. And he made quite effective use of slides to illustrate various points. One of those featured a very snappy website of a fellow environmental campaigner Dr Greg Ogle who headed a not for profit legal service styled Bush Lawyers Ink - for an amusing, partly cynical look at the issues (easily accessible via a Google search on the Internet.)

Mark's talk to us was a great presentation, enlivened by his genial and quite affable manner combined with his considerable knowledge and clear grasp of all the issues. He also has a website - www.markparnell.org.au - and a colourful Newsletter - "Greens in State Parliament" that are worth taking a look at.

Steve Patroni

25.5.2007

 

JUNE 8th 2007

"Why I am a Humanist"

President Dorothy Bell opened the meeting, gave definitions of Humanism from Ray Dahlitzís book making it clear that Rationalists, Secularists, Atheists and many more were all included.

Dick Clifford was the first speaker, saying that this was the potted story of his life which started on the 25 12 24. He had the benefit of having good parents, described as that rare commodity an English lady and gentleman. So of course he went to Sunday School, then became an alter boy. Then there was a shortage in the choir and he was literally press ganged into the choir.

Meanwhile at school he was learning about science, the elements, the gas laws etc. and found that the more you knew about science the less you believed in things that go bump in the night. Then with his Grandma he went to the local library where he read books on Astronomy, evolution and much more. He also went to Hornimanís Museum where there was a great display of the skeletons of mammals, arranged in order from man down to the very smallest, but looking at adjacent skeletons it was very hard to see any difference showing that we are indeed one family who have evolved. Sadly, at a later time a local church demonstrated against this exhibit on the grounds that it supported evolution. The Museum, concerned about the possibility of damage to the museum and the exhibits agreed to withdraw the display.

Dickís parents had become concerned about his views and brought in the local Sacristan. While Dick agreed with the teachings of Jesus (sermon on the mount etc) he could not accept the mumbo jumbo that went with it. Then the Sacristan made the mistake of teaching the doctrine of original sin, which so horrified Dick that he became an agnostic. But he continued to be interested in social reform and the works of George Bernard Shaw and the Fabians.

The War came and he was called into the Navy where he became a radio mechanic but fell ill with TB and spent a year in hospital. After the war he joined the local Fabian Society a body very much like our society and in '52 the whole family emigrated and he joined the ALP. Contesting the State seat of Glenelg where he did not impress. He got married in '62.

He kept up his interest in Science recalling the earth research in the 60s which proved that continental drift did take place, using many different sciences, it was a good vindication of scientific method.

Joining the Humanist Society some 10 years after it started he came to the realization that he was really a Humanist.

Dorothy Bell was the 2nd speaker, she was not brought up in a religious household. Her father was brought up in the Anglican Cottage Homes which had a warm and happy family type life. He was taught to repair shoes. He was still repairing his familyís shoes at the age of 72 when he came to Australia but he did not go to church.

Dorothy when aged 8 joined the Sunday school and at 11 she became saved and signed the pledge - every year - to abjure drink. You did not dance, that would be encouraging impure thoughts. She joined the choir and the scripture union. She enjoyed the choir and never regretted such times.

At the age of 22 she became baptized - full immersion - but then started to realise that many did not do what they said, but were doing dishonest things in everyday life.

She became involved in Archery, entered a Tournament which was on the same day as the Sunday School anniversary. She went to the Archery. She saw Billy Graham in Manchester but was not impressed.

Married at 24, she came to Australia with husband and 3 children, went to a Humanist Society meeting chaired by Peter Woolcock who said we want to encourage people to join and run social functions, start a social group. She discussed this with her neighbour Cathie Brandt, who said "we can do that" so they did!

Dorothy concluded by saying that she is a practical Humanist because people have rights. We need to fight against land mines and cluster bombs.

Questions followed, concluding with Janice querying why most humanists came from a protestant or Jewish background, replies were indefinate, but the next speaker -

Michael Cunnington was born on 1 6 1937, declared he had an Irish Catholic upbringing, and he resented his Christian education because it was an indoctrination. He was taught to fear hell fire and Gods Wroth which filled him with fear, There was much violence, teachers beat the children severely. Sister Basil sent him home bruised from ankle to neck. Mother asked what happened to him. "Sister Basil beat me."-"Well you must have deserved it." Todayís parents would raise protests with the school authorities.

He asked questions about Catholic consecration - the wafer and the wine actually becomes the body and blood of the Christ, hard to accept - and the difference between mortal and venal sin. With mortal sin you would go straight to hell, with venal sin your punishment would not last for ever. He was told "Cunnington, you think too much, all the thinking has been done for you, all you have to do is to believe."

He recalled hiding in the kitchen with his mother while the priest banged on the door for a donation they did not have.

Priests and teachers were able to get away with violent behaviour because people believed that what they said was true but Michael had read philosophers including Bertrand Russell. His resentment of religion was due to him not being allowed to grow, he was being conditioned. Humanism should get more militant, Humanism requires not toleration but a rejection of religion. Our adversaries donít have an open mind.

For many years he was an agnostic thanks to Bertrand Russell, because he could not prove there was no fairies at the bottom of his Garden, but now he says "thank you Richard Dawkins for your book" "The God Delusion" I can now call myself an Atheist.

In the Philippines you cant cross the road without seeing someone dragging the Virgin Mary up and down the street. Religious icons are everywhere but the people are in extreme poverty and are still waiting for Jesus, food and sustenance. His Grandmother became blind and deaf and then became afflicted with ulcers in the mouth. To the very end she still had her Rosary Beads. Humanism requires courage, most educated people are Atheists. Michael believes in reason and science and recommended Richard Dawkins book.

Dick Clifford
20 7 2007

 

 
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