Soapbox Speakers

Patrick Coleman.

The 2011 television show, “Tony Robinson Explores Australia”, featured the sleepy coastal city of Townsville in Queensland. For one brief moment, Tony Robinson alluded to the fact that the now quiet streets were at one time alive with workers and shoppers.

Had Tony Robinson arrived in Townsville in 1998 during the Federal Election, he may have found “the strange case of the Speakers’ Stone”. Townsville Council had erected a speakers platform and named it “Speakers’ Stone”. They placed it near the Flinders Street Mall, in honour of a long forgotten “tree of knowledge” that once grew in the vicinity.

Townsville Council’s “City Safe Committee” allowed speeches there, if the speaker held a permit.  Patrick Coleman, a James Cook university law student and former soldier, took to the platform during the national debate that year for a referendum on a Bill of Rights. The debate was ignited by the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser (1930-2015).

Mr. Coleman spoke over a 22 week period during the election. He was charged with unlawful public address at the mall’s Speakers’ Stone because he spoke without a council permit.  He was fined $300 or ten days in goal and ordered to pay $3,035 costs or 101 days in gaol.

Mr Coleman challenged the conviction  and took his case to the Queensland Supreme Court and later to the Queensland Court of Appeal.  However, those courts upheld his conviction and denied him leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia. Mr. Coleman was imprisoned for five days for non-payment of the fine.

In 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that Queensland law and a Townsville by-law impermissibly restricted Coleman’s right to freedom of expression, placing Australia in breach of its obligations under the UN Human Rights Conventions.

Mr. Coleman believes that a serious discussion for a Bill of Rights should happen in Australia.

It would be interesting to know: (1) What ever happened to a Bill of Rights for Australia? (2)  Is the “Speakers’ Stone” still standing and still being used in Townsville?

Steve Maxwell.

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