'Dignity and the Australian Constitution' by Scott Stephenson in (2020) 42(4) Sydney Law Review 369 comments
Today dignity is one of the most significant constitutional principles across the world given that it underpins and informs the interpretation of human rights. This article considers the role of dignity in the Australian Constitution. The starting point is the 2019 decision of Clubb v Edwards, which marked the arrival of dignity in Australia. In that case, the High Court of Australia found that laws restricting protests outside of abortion facilities were justified under the implied freedom of political communication partly on the basis that they protect the dignity of persons accessing those facilities. The article argues that dignity was used in two ways in the Court’s decision: first, as a means of distinguishing natural persons from corporations; and second, as one purpose that a law can pursue that is compatible with the implied freedom. The article develops and defends the first use of dignity, while identifying some challenges that arise with the second use of dignity.
Since the middle of the 20th century, dignity has become one of the most significant principles in both public international law and domestic public law across the world. The reason being that dignity is ‘a central organizing principle in the idea of universal human rights’. As the recognition of human rights has spread around the globe at the domestic and international level, so too has the recognition of dignity — sometimes understood as a foundation for human rights, sometimes as a freestanding right and sometimes as a principle that guides the interpretation of other human rights. This seismic shift in the legal landscape has largely passed by Australia due to the lack of a national bill of rights. While the International Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Justice, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, the Supreme Court of the United States, the Supreme Court of Canada, the Supreme Court of Israel, the Constitutional Court of South Africa and many other courts have issued important judgments on the meaning and use of dignity, the High Court of Australia has said almost nothing about the concept. The High Court’s 2019 decision in Clubb v Edwards is, therefore, a major development because it represents the first time that the concept of dignity has been used to help interpret the Australian Constitution. The case involved a challenge to the constitutional validity of Tasmanian and Victorian legislation prohibiting protests held outside facilities where abortions are provided. The plaintiffs contended that these laws infringed the implied freedom of political communication. The Court dismissed the challenge, with a number of judges holding that the laws were enacted for the purpose of protecting the dignity of persons accessing the facilities and that this purpose is compatible with the constitutionally prescribed system of representative and responsible government. The protection of dignity thus now appears to be a principle with a degree of constitutional recognition in Australia, capable of justifying the imposition of restrictions on the implied freedom.
This article interrogates the introduction of dignity into the Australian constitutional landscape, advancing three claims. First, the High Court’s decision in Clubb suggests there are two different ways in which dignity might be used in Australia. It can be used in the broad manner mentioned above — to identify one purpose that a law can pursue that is compatible with the constitutionally prescribed system of representative and responsible government (dignity as a legitimate purpose). But it can also be used in a narrower manner as a means of distinguishing the position of natural persons and corporations under the implied freedom. Natural persons have an interest that corporations do not — the protection of their dignity (dignity as a distinctive characteristic). In Clubb, Kiefel CJ, Bell and Keane JJ gesture towards this second use of dignity when they distinguish the case from the situation in Brown v Tasmania, where the Court invalidated legislation prohibiting protests near the site of forestry operations. The protests outside abortion facilities generated a form of harm that was not generated in the case of protests outside forestry operations — harm to the dignity of persons accessing abortion facilities.
Second, the article develops and defends the narrower use of dignity as a distinctive characteristic. It argues that corporations have generated two challenges under the implied freedom that have presented difficulties for the High Court in recent years. One is the extent to which the political communication of corporations is protected under the implied freedom. Evaluating the Court’s decisions in Unions NSW v New South Wales and McCloy v New South Wales, the article suggests that the Court has not identified a satisfactory legal, as opposed to a factual, means of justifying its conclusions as to when legislatures can restrict the political communication of corporations. It argues that dignity as a distinctive characteristic might provide such a justification. The second challenge is the extent to which restrictions on political communication can be imposed to protect corporations from harm. The article argues that dignity as a distinctive characteristic, as gestured towards in Clubb, is a useful and justifiable way of differentiating between, on the one hand, the scope of the legislature’s ability to protect corporations from harm and, on the other hand, the scope of the legislature’s ability to protect natural persons from harm.
Third, the article considers two issues that arise with the broader use of dignity as a legitimate purpose. One issue is the uncertainty that surrounds the meaning of dignity. As dignity has many different, and sometimes contradictory, aspects, the Court will need to provide further guidance as to what the term means in the Australian constitutional context. This will be no easy task. Take, for example, the aspect of dignity that was the focus of Clubb — the prevention of unwanted messages being forced upon people. The difficulty is that almost every political protest involves forcing unwanted messages upon people — people passing the protest in the street, people entering the legislative building, and so on. It cannot therefore be the case that the prevention of unwanted messages being forced upon people is compatible with the constitutionally prescribed system of representative and responsible government in all circumstances. It must be understood as the protection of particular messages being forced upon particular people in particular circumstances.
The second issue that arises with the broader use of dignity as a legitimate purpose is the uncertainty that surrounds the use of dignity. In Australia, there is a risk that dignity will only be recognised as relevant to the law’s purpose, not also the law’s effect on speakers, due to the limited scope of the implied freedom of political communication. The article identifies two related problems with this path. One is that it creates a partial and distorted conception of dignity. As all natural persons are understood to have dignity, it is misleading to recognise the dignity of listeners and disregard the dignity of speakers. The other is that it flips the principal objective of dignity on its head. Dignity is understood, first and foremost, as a justification for the existence of rights and freedoms, not as a justification for their abrogation. If the High Court were to use dignity only as a legitimate purpose, it would turn the concept solely into a vehicle for limiting rights and freedoms.
The article is divided into three parts. Part II advances the first claim by providing an overview of the High Court’s invocations of dignity in Clubb. Part III makes the second claim by analysing the Court’s approach to corporations and the implied freedom, and the role that dignity as a distinctive characteristic has played and could play in the future. Part IV puts forward the third argument by highlighting the challenges that the Court will need to confront if it intends to use dignity as a legitimate purpose.