16/07/2009 - 00:00

Checks and balances protect the populace

16/07/2009 - 00:00


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Power needs to be exercised in a principled manner.

Checks and balances protect the populace

I HAVE travelled widely across the state and seen the circumstances in which others live - city and country - and I believe that I have acquired an appreciation of their problems.

In my view, there is nothing so destructive to a community, even a state as great as Western Australia, as the feeling that others do not understand or care about their particular problems. I have learned the importance of listening to others and the importance to them of knowing that they have been heard.

For example, I have stayed in distant regional centres when out on circuit. Although that, of course, is not the same as living there full time, it does give one an inkling of the sorts of problems people face in those centres: the frustration of poor telephone connections; unreliable electricity; prohibitively expensive air fares; lack of accommodation in growing centres; reduced access to medical facilities; and even getting the morning paper a day later than everyone else in the state.

All in all, it is the feeling that, because people are in a rural centre, they may as well be in another country altogether. I have also found that even differences between some parts of this city can be as profound as those between Perth and the remotest parts of the state.

It is the appreciation of this unique diversity of ours that reinforces my commitment to preserve our state's autonomy. We are, I believe, best served by a genuinely cooperative federal system of government.

I have alluded to one of the things the wartime experiences of my parents and grandparents hammered into me. What happened in Europe in the lead-up to World War II has indelibly impressed on me the dangers of concentrating too much power in the one set of hands, and how badly power can be abused.

Although of Eastern European heritage, I was born and raised in Australia. My career as a legal practitioner has made me an even greater admirer of the institutions we have inherited from Britain, ideals such as an independent judiciary, an independent civil service and the concept of a bicameral legislature.

I accept that, as a general principle, the government of the day should not be obstructed in its legislative program.

But that does not mean that the manner in which it implements its program should not be examined with the utmost probity and, when necessary, opposed.

For example, in some cases when public passions over an issue are inflamed, a hasty response may result in laws that are badly drafted or have unforeseen or undesirable consequences.

We cannot afford the luxury of allowing expediency to triumph over principle. Our system provides us with a cooling-off period and an opportunity for further examination and consideration.

No publisher, for example, would consider sending something to print without it being reviewed by a proofreader, yet the way we are going I genuinely feel that the erosion of our rights and freedoms may occur by stealth. I acknowledge that the community's desire for security, whether from terrorists or thugs in pubs, creates a seemingly increasing demand for regulation.

There is an assumption - its genesis probably in the concept of the welfare state - that governments can cure every ill.

But laws alone cannot eliminate every risk a citizen faces, and no human institution has ever functioned with such machine-like precision, let alone satisfied everyone's expectations of it. Laws can provide only a measure of our rights and obligations; they guarantee nothing.

History has shown us that such a quixotic search for state-guaranteed safety can result only in the creation of a police state. We must be wary in our search for security and to perfect our institutions that we do not lose the flexibility that allows them to adapt and to evolve. This, after all, has been the source of their resilience over the centuries and their value until now.

Let me say that I believe the greatest defence against that is not a bill of rights. We will not protect the people by abrogating responsibility to unelected judges or to broad and bold statements of principle that do not allow for subtlety and necessary exception.

People can, however, protect themselves by better understanding the basics of our system of government and the institutions upon which our society is founded.

We, as legislators, can protect the people by exercising our power in the most principled way.

The latter is why the legislative council continues to have a vitally important role in our system of government and why I am particularly grateful to be able to serve in this place.

But power carries with it responsibility. I believe our responsibility is to deal with the business before the house diligently and expeditiously and to not wilfully obstruct the progress of matters before it by insubstantial attempts at point scoring.

I believe that obstruction and disruption are an insult to the dignity of this house and a betrayal of the responsibilities that we bear towards our constituents.

n This is an edited extract from the inaugural speech of Michael Mischin, who has been elected to the legislative council after a 27-year legal career.


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