McCloy Symposium: Joo-Cheong Tham Sounds a Cautionary Note on Political Equality as a Constitutional Principle

By Dr Joo-Cheong Tham

McCloy Case Page

In its 1974 decision, Buckley v Valeo, 424 US 1 (1975), the United States Supreme Court infamously ruled that:

the concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements of our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.

Decades later, Buckley remains powerfully influential with the Supreme Court in McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission stating last year that:

No matter how desirable it may seem, it is not an acceptable governmental objective to ‘level the playing field’, or to ‘level electoral opportunities’, or to ‘equalize the financial resources of candidates’.

In McCloy v New South Wales [2015] HCA 34, the High Court emphatically rejected the approach of US Supreme Court as to the illegitimacy of political equality or fairness as a legislative objective. On the contrary, under the Commonwealth Constitution, ‘(l)egislative regulation of the electoral process directed to the protection of the integrity of the process is … prima facie legitimate’.

Central to the conclusion that political equality and fairness are legitimate legislative objectives was the High Court’s insistence that political equality was a constitutional principle. Yet, the latter was hardly necessary for the former conclusion. If elections are to be ‘free and fair’, it would seem absurd to deny Parliament the ability to regulate with the view to advancing electoral fairness, regardless of what the Constitution said about political equality. As McLachlin CJ and Major J observed in the Canadian Supreme Court decision in Harper v Canada [2004] SCC 33 — a decision favourably cited by the joint judgment and Gageler J:

Common sense dictates that promoting electoral fairness is a pressing and substantial objective in our liberal democracy.

Not only does logic fail to bind these two aspects of the High Court’s judgment in McCloy, they also carry quite different implications in terms of legislative ability to regulate elections. The High Court’s ruling that political equality and fairness are legitimate legislative objectives permits Parliaments to regulate elections for these purposes; political equality as a constitutional principle, on the other hand, will constrain the ability of Parliaments to regulate elections, even in situations when the purported justification is one of equality and fairness.

This post sounds a cautionary note on the elevation of political equality as a constitutional principle in McCloy. It does so by posing three questions, questions that alert us to the fact that political equality as a constitutional principle does not necessarily result in the realisation of political equality and, in fact, poses risks to the democratic project. Continue reading

News: Special leave granted on solicitor’s duty to will beneficiary

Yesterday, separate from the Court’s usual special leave schedule, the High Court granted special leave to appeal a ruling of the full court of the Supreme Court of Tasmania decided three months ago. (HT: Joel Townsend.) Having recently granted special leave in a NSW case to reconsider the scope and existence of advocates’ immunity from negligence suits in respect of their court work, the new Tasmanian grant raises the scope of solicitors’ liability in negligence for their non-court work, specifically their duty to the beneficiaries of wills they prepare.  Continue reading

R v Beckett

The High Court has allowed an appeal against the decision of the New South Wales Court of Appeal relating to perverting the course of justice and making false statements under oath. Beckett was committed for trial on indictment in the NSW District Court on a charge of perverting the course of justice (s 319 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW)) and on an alternative charge of making a false statement Continue reading

News: Nettle J on open justice in Victoria

A procedural hearing on Tuesday hinted at Nettle J’s views on open justice in Victoria, an issue that has been recently debated in The Age. The matter concerns an effort by two police officers who are potentially facing criminal charges for misconduct to stop IBAC (Victoria’s anti-corruption commission) from publicly examining them about that misconduct. The pair’s argument, which rests on recent High Court decisions on whether Australian statutes allowing people to be compulsorily examined on matters that tend to incriminate them must give way to fundamental principles of accusatorial justice, failed in Victoria’s Court of Appeal late last month. The pair now wish to appeal to the High Court and Nettle J was asked to decide two urgent questions ahead of their application for special leave to appeal.

One issue was whether the pair could be named publicly ahead of the special leave application. Continue reading

McCloy Symposium: Lael Weis on Why Political Communication Isn’t an Individual Right in Australia

By Dr Lael Weis

McCloy Case Page

Much of the commentary about McCloy, the High Court’s recent decision upholding NSW’s ban on donations by property developers, will concern the disagreement among members of the Court about the appropriate method for analysing burdens on the freedom of political communication, and I will look forward to what my colleagues have to say. My own contribution to the blog symposium on this case focuses on a long-standing consensus point: namely, the idea that the freedom is not an ‘individual right’.

Although I imagine members of the public might feel somewhat scandalized if told the right of individuals to communicate political matters is a fake idea in Australia, this is something the Court seems firmly committed to. Each of the four judgments in McCloy affirms this proposition: at [29]–[30] (French CJ, Kiefel, Bell, and Keane JJ); at [119]–[120] (Gageler J); at [219] (Nettle J); at [316]–[319] (Gordon J).

This was also a consensus theme in Unions NSW [2013] HCA 58, the antecedent to McCloy that struck down a wider NSW ban on political contributions by people who are not on the electoral role, such as corporations and unions. In a joint judgment Continue reading

News: Five new appeals, one an enigma

In hearings yesterday in Brisbane and Sydney, the High Court granted special leave in five new matters, including two Queensland judgments where Holmes JA (who recently replaced Carmody CJ as chief justice of Queensland) was the lone dissent. We know what four of the five judgments being appealed are broadly about:

  • Fischer v Nemeske Pty Ltd [2015] NSWCA 6, a dispute about a family trust, where minutes of a 1994 meeting of directors indicated a distribution of $4M of assets to two beneficiaries. Since then, both beneficiaries, their daughter and all but one of the directors have died, without any transfer of property. The NSW Court of Appeal unanimously held that the directors duly exercised their powers in 1994,that an oral resolution a month before accelerating the vesting day didn’t affect the distribution, that the distribution placed the trust in debt to the beneficiaries and that a 2004 directors’ declaration acknowledging the earlier events extended the period for enforcing the debt (which otherwise would have expired in 2007) so that the estate’s claim could proceed.
  • Murdoch v The Queen [2014] NTCCA 20, an appeal by a man convicted of sexually abusing his step-grandchild on three occasions. The Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeal unanimously held that the trial judge properly admitted evidence from the complainant’s friend and relatives of the revelation of the abuse, that a direction to the jury that her revelations ‘were some evidence that an offence did occur’ was appropriate (despite their generality), and that the trial judge properly admitted her testimony about a later incident where the accused allegedly ran his hand up her leg during a massage as evidence of the accused’s sexual interest in her. The latter issue may finally draw the High Court into a dispute between the NSW and Victorian courts as to the meaning of the key terms ‘probative value’ and ‘significant probative value’ in Australia’s uniform evidence legislation.
  • Mekpine Pty Ltd v Moreton Bay Regional Council [2014] QCA 317, an action by a shopping centre tenant for compensation for land that the Council resumed for road improvements in 2008. When the lease was signed in 1999, it was over a lot unaffected by the later roadworks, but a redevelopment five years later combined that lot with another lot that was affected. While the trial judge and Holmes JA would have rejected the tenant’s claim, a majority of the Queensland Court of Appeal held that the amalgamation gave the tenant an interest in both lots and that, anyway, a statutory provision giving commercial tenants rights over ‘common areas’ meant that the tenant had a compensable interest in the area that was resumed.
  • McDermott & Ors v Robinson Helicopter Company Incorporated [2014] QCA 357, an action by a survivor of a fatal helicopter accident near the Queensland/Northern Territory border, alleging that the chopper’s maintenance manual gave inadequate instructions on how to check for loose bolts (the cause of the accident.) While the trial judge and Holmes JA held that the manual was adequate in requiring that a tape on key bolts be routinely visually inspected for signs of twisting, a majority of the Queensland Court of Appeal held that the manual should have recommended physically testing each bolt’s tightness with a spanner. (Presumably, the High Court’s interest in the case is not about the law of helicopter bolt maintenance manuals, but rather the appropriateness of an appeal court reversing a trial judge’s factual findings in a negligence case.)

The fifth judgment is an enigma for now. Continue reading

PT Bayan Resources TBK v BCBC Singapore Pte Ltd

The High Court has dismissed an appeal against a decision of the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Western Australia regarding Mareva asset freezing orders and prospective foreign judgments and whether the WASC’s powers are inconsistent with the Foreign Judgments Act 1991 (Cth) by the operation of s 109 of the Australian Constitution. The appellant Continue reading

Wright Prospecting Pty Ltd v Mount Bruce Mining Pty Ltd; Mount Bruce Mining Pty Ltd v Wright Prospecting Pty Ltd

The High Court has decided an appeal and cross-appeal arising out of two decisions of the New South Wales Court of Appeal relating to mining royalty liabilities, finding in favour of Wright Prospecting in both matters. In 1970, Mount Bruce Mining (MBM) entered into an agreement with Hanwright (a partnership formed by Wright Prospecting Pty Ltd and Hancock Prospecting Pty Ltd) to purchase Continue reading

D’Arcy v Myriad Genetics Inc

The High Court has unanimously allowed an appeal from the Full Federal Court on the validity of a gene patent. The patent relates to a particular DNA or RNA sequence named BRCA1 that has been isolated (or removed) from its ordinary cellular environment and is an indicator of breast or ovarian cancer. Dismissing the appeal from the trial judge’s decision, the Full Federal Continue reading

Alcan Gove Pty Ltd v Zabic

The High Court has unanimously dismissed an appeal against the decision of the Court of Appeal of the Northern Territory on the tort of negligence in the context of asbestos exposure and statute barring. Zabic was exposed to asbestos dust during three years of working for Alcan, and was recently diagnosed with terminal mesothelioma. Zabic claimed common law damages Continue reading

News: Court’s website now includes its judgments

In a seemingly unannounced change, which occurred somewhere between May and July this year, the High Court’s website now contains a database of its own judgments, consisting of all judgments since 2000, and also all ‘unreported’ judgments from 1924 to 2002. The site has its own (somewhat unfashionable) url – – and you can link to summaries and judgments via urls in this domain that incorporate the media neutral citation. The database is browsable and searchable, and provides copies of the judgments in .rtf and .pdf (but not html) format.  The website states that new judgments will be published ‘on the day they are delivered’, although presumably they will be up within the hour, as is typical on Austlii and Jade. For now, transcripts of the Court’s hearings are not available on the Court’s website.

This change brings Australia’s national court closer into line with the practice of comparable courts Continue reading

News: US anti-abortion activist fails in High Court bid to fight deportation

US anti-abortion activist Troy Newman has failed in his last minute High Court bid to challenge the revocation of his Australian visa. His visa was revoked days before he was due to tour Australia. Newman has espoused controversial views regarding abortion, suggesting in a co-authored book that persons who seek abortions and doctors who perform them should be executed for murder. Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton cancelled his visa pursuant to s 128 of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth). Section 128 allows the Minister to cancel a visa before the non-citizen holder enters Australia on the basis of the considerations set out in s 116. The relevant consideration in this case was s 116(e)(i): namely, that the presence of the visa holder in Australia might pose a risk to the health, safety or good order of the Australian community or a segment of the Australian community. Continue reading

News: Pfennig back in court

A long-running Adelaide mystery, the 1983 disappearance of 11 year-old Louise Bell, is currently being explored in a Supreme Court murder trial. The Advertiser reports a prosecutor’s description of an alleged conversation between prisoners at Mt Gambier Prison:

Pfennig started to talk about Michael Black, how he had murdered him,” she said. “He said he couldn’t tell anyone where Michael Black was ‘because there is a chick there’. “The other prisoner asked ‘what chick?’ and Pfennig replied ‘Bell’.”

If true, this amounts to an admission by Dieter Pfennig, not only to his responsibility for Bell’s death, but also to the correctness of a 1995 High Court ruling upholding Pfennig’s conviction for the murder of Black, who vanished near the Murray River in 1989. That judgment is arguably the Court’s most significant (and most controversial) ruling on evidence law. Continue reading