Values and the law

valuesEvery society has a range of values – in other words, principles and ideas about the way people should live, conduct themselves and be treated by others. Because of our history as a collection of English colonies, Australian values were largely derived from those of Great Britain. Many of these values are still present in our society today. The passage of time, the arrival of millions of immigrants and our evolution as a nation have allowed Australia to acquire its own distinct set of values. Individuals acquire their values from a range of sources: their friends, the education they receive, their religious beliefs and exposure to the media and cultural elements such as literature, television, movies and the Internet. Above all, we acquire most of our core values from our parents, our family and our upbringing.

Although Australia is a liberal democracy that permits diversity and freedom of thought and expression, there are certain core values that the majority of Australians accept and believe. These fundamental values are the bedrock of Australian society and inform law-making to a significant degree. Newcomers to Australia to acknowledge, accept and abide by these values. Among these core values are a number of values and beliefs. Australians believe that all citizens should be safe from physical harm. They believe that personal property should be secure from theft or damage. They believe that everyone should enjoy equal rights, regardless of their gender, sexuality, race or religion. They believe everyone has a right to think and speak freely. They believe everyone has a right to choose and practice any religious belief. They believe everyone should have reasonable access to welfare, education and health care. They believe everyone is entitled to have a say in the election of governments. And Australians also believe that everyone should be treated fairly and equally by the law.

Our laws both reflect and reinforce these values and expectations. Criminal codes protect individuals from physical harm, theft and property damage. Anti-discrimination laws protect the rights of women, ethnic and minority groups. The Constitution and legislation guarantee our fundamental right to participate in the election of governments by voting. Legislation, the courts and court procedures ensure that individuals receive fair treatment before the law if they are accused of a criminal offence or subject to civil action. The law also reinforces certain social rights and values by banning practices such as slavery, child trading, people smuggling, polygamy, female genital mutilation and so on.

While there is a broad consensus about these core values, it is worth remembering that Australia is a multicultural and diverse society, containing millions of people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Australian society has developed a diversity of ideas, values and expectations. Some of the values and issues that attract a greater diversity of views amongst Australians – and therefore varying levels of disagreement – include:

  • The rights, recognition and entitlements of same-sex couples.
  • The types and severity of sanctions that should be imposed on convicted criminals.
  • Attitudes about immigration, refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and citizenship.
  • Matters of public decency, such as nudity, pornography and sexual advertising.

One of the challenges of the law is to reflect a consensus of views and values but to do so responsibly, in line with international standards and with due regard to minorities. Western law has been very much based on utilitarianism: the ethical philosophy that law and government should strive to produce the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’. This does not mean that the law is or should be purely democratic. Making and reforming laws is not as simple as determining what a majority of people think, since sometimes even a majority viewpoint may be wrong. The last execution in Australia was carried out in 1967, after which courts stopped utilising it and parliaments wrote it out of legislation. Opinion polls for the next three decades showed continued public support for capital punishment. Conversely, the law should not change simply to cater to minority groups, temporary shifts in values or passing whims. A complaint often made about the law is that it reacts and reforms too slowly, and is often a decade or a generation behind the social values of the day.

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