800 Years Later, We Owe Magna Carta Vigilance


Magna Carta: many reference the 800 year old document, but few understand it.

It may seem strange that an agreement between a King and his barons made on 15 June 1215 should still be regarded as one of the most important documents in history. Yet its content is as vital to modern Australia as

it was to ancient England and the principles first set out in Magna Carta are the foundation of our concepts of a free and fair society founded on the rule of law.

In addition to the well-known right to a trial by jury, Magna Carta is also responsible for access to just courts, and the freedom from being punished without being convicted in a court. It’s to thank for the fact governments may not detain people without authority of law or the courts, arbitrarily levy taxes, or impose laws without the authority of Parliament.

Today, these rights seem so basic and fundamental that having fought wars over the centuries to protect them, it feels inconceivable they would be removed or limited.

However, this belief has led to a level of complacency.

An essential part of what makes Australia such a great place to live, work, play and invest is the fact our society is safe, law abiding, and legally stable.

While we know that such rights are not enjoyed by all around the globe, we sometimes fail to see when they are threatened at home through proposals to expand the powers of police to stop and search us for no reason, or to limit rights of peaceful public protest. Both such proposals, while attempted numerous times in Western Australia, have fortunately not been successful.

As important is knowing that when we enter into agreements with each other or the government, they can be enforced without fear or favour. Our just, independent and robust court system is what makes Australia not only safe but a favoured destination for the foreign investment that we rely upon to support our standard of living.

However, we must be vigilant to ensure that the resourcing of our courts keeps apace with our State’s growing population and economy, and do not reduce our ability to ensure swift justice and economic development.

Similarly, failing to adequately provide legal aid and legal support for people that cannot afford it makes justice unreachable to all but the rich. This robs many in society of the rights and freedoms enjoyed by other Australians.

Prohibition of indefinite and unlawful detention is a concept that we have largely embraced in Australia. Unfortunately, we have had trouble with this concept at the extremes, by extending periods of time that police can hold people without charge and permitting extended periods of detention for non-citizens without court oversight.

Without walking into the debate of mandatory detention or Australia’s treatment of refugees, it is vitally important that all people are properly afforded the right to have their case heard and for decision makers in government to operate according to law. And yet for some time we have seen governments trying to skirt the edges, cut corners and seek to get away with things which, if they involved our own citizens, we spark outraged.

While some will say such incursions into our rights are a necessary burden, this activity must be balanced against the type of society that we want to be. History shows that the way governments treat ‘others’ can be the thin edge of the wedge of what may come for society at large.

At the heart of Magna Carta was a desire for good government, which treats people fairly and allows us to resolve disputes justly. In Australia, we have encapsulated this as the concept of ‘a fair go’.

All rights also come with responsibilities. One of the key responsibilities is vigilance; as has often been said, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”.

The same goes for the principles of Magna Carta. The world has changed a lot in 800 years and so have our laws and the protections of our basic freedoms.

As a society we must all pay attention to the actions and proposals of government and continually evaluate whether they really reflect the fair go that we aspire to in Australia.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.