The debate surrounding capital punishment endures: Boston bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev—the younger of two brothers responsible for detonating explosives that killed civilians in the 2013 Boston Marathon—was sentenced to death by an American jury last week.
Headlines seized on the Boston case, though Tsarnaev wasn’t alone. In Egypt, former president Mohamed Morsi was sent to death row alongside 100 other officials; and in the dystopian fantasy land of North Korea, Kim Jong Un added his defence minister to a growing list of state murders, a horrific public death involving anti-aircraft fire.
This comes as the reverberation of rifle shots that put an end to the lives of Bali 9 ringleaders, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan hushes to a hollow whimper, and with it, the flare of local outrage at Indonesia’s hard-line position on the punishment.
So strong and ubiquitous was the national outpour of disdain towards the deaths of Chan and Sukumaran—even, at times, from the Murdoch press—that anyone watching might have believed Australia was finally united in universal opposition to the death penalty.
They would be wrong. Australia remains mixed about the death penalty, just as it was almost a half-century ago…
A tense, polarised mood washed through Victoria on February 3, 1967 when petty criminal Ronald Ryan was sent to the gallows for allegedly shooting a Pentridge prison guard in a botched escape attempt. The hanging of Ryan catalysed the abolition of the death penalty in Australia.
In 1973, the Death Penalty Abolition Act was passed, eradicating the punishment at a federal level. State-wise, Queensland was the first to rescind the penalty in 1922 and New South Wales the last (it had abolished the penalty for murder in 1955, but kept it for treason and piracy for another 30 years).
“In law and practice, our nation is free of capital punishment; but deeper, complicated attitudes seem to be holding on to it for dear life.”
In 1984, Brenda Hodge, a Victorian woman, became the last Australian to be condemned to death, but like a handful of others between 1967 and the mid ‘80s, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The passage of the federal Crimes Legislation Amendment in 2010 foreclosed any loophole that might allow a state or territory to reintroduce the sentence.
In law and practice, our nation is free of capital punishment; but deeper, complicated attitudes seem to be holding on to it for dear life. While the country is slowly becoming less harsh on its views about the death penalty, opinions shift around when you start asking different questions.
For example, in the lead up to the recent executions in Indonesia, a Roy Morgan poll showed a small majority of the population believed that Australians convicted of drug trafficking overseas ought to be executed. When people were asked specifically whether Sukumaran and Chan ought to be killed, opinions flipped: a small majority were now against it.
Grievousness of the crime involved also appears to be a factor. A 2014 poll asked whether or not the death penalty ought to be applied locally in cases of deadly terrorist acts. Here, a small majority of 52% expressed support (a significant jump from 29% in 2009).
It’s no doubt these polls that former PM John Howard was talking about when he publicly stood by Indonesia’s decision to execute the Bali bombers despite opposing the measure in principle. Politics tends to mimic, if not coddle our mixed feelings: Tony Abbott, a man who has “always been against the death penalty”, questions his conviction in some cases. Like mass murder, for example:
That’s when you do start to think that maybe the only appropriate punishment is death
Though some might prefer to think otherwise, there’s no two-way bet when it comes to capital punishment. To be opposed is to be opposed; it’s a moral absolute. As Professor of Law at the University of NSW, George Williams adds:
The notion that it is acceptable to execute terrorists but not other criminals, or to execute foreign nationals but not Australians, is morally and logically unsustainable
Few politicians have been vocal against the penalty in this way. When former Labour Attorney-General, Robert McClelland spoke out, he was publically scolded by colleagues and then-leader, Kevin Rudd for expressing opinions so clearly out of sync with voters.
But then, abolition was out of sync with public opinion back in 1967 too—the movement came in spite of it, led not by politicians or the broader public but the ‘elites’: academics, the media and the legal establishment, all of which stood against the killing of Ronald Ryan on principle and followed his death with action.
While our very own Hector Barbossa, Barnaby Joyce taps (for good or evil) into our wellspring of divergent sentiments, it may be worth remembering that, like so many moral struggles, it took a conscious and far from popular thrust for our country to rid itself of capital punishment. It took the devoted actions of a minority who recognised the fundamental principle that killing anyone under any circumstance is barbaric, bar none.