Greg Barns, Alice Springs October 2010
Greg Barns, Alice Springs October 2010

Greg Barns is an Australian barrister, author, political commentator and former political candidate based in Hobart, Tasmania. He practiced in criminal law at the Victorian Bar from 1986-89 and has been a member of the Tasmanian Bar since 2003.

Greg was chief of staff and senior adviser to a number of federal and state Liberal Party leaders and ministers from 1989-99. He is also the former National Chair of the Australian Republican Movement and a director of human rights group, Rights Australia. Greg has written three books on Australian politics, is a Director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, and a member of the Australian Defence Lawyers Alliance.

Greg ran the 1999 Republic Referendum campaign with Malcolm Turnbull. He is the author of What’s Wrong with the Liberal Party? (2003) and Selling the Australian Government: Politics and Propaganda from Whitlam to Howard (2005).

In 2011 Greg will assume the Presidency of the Australian Lawyers Alliance. I caught up with Greg at the ALA’s 2010 Annual Conference at Alice Springs this past weekend.

The Northern Myth: What is wrong with the Liberal Party these days?

Greg Barns: Well the Liberal Party is a liberal party only in name. It is a deeply conservative party and it’s  been that way since John Howard assumed power again within the party in 1995.

TNM: Should they be prosecuted for false and misleading conduct?

GB: Well they certainly should be because  this is the only party in the world that is called “Liberal” that is actually far right. If you  look at Canada and the UK – the Liberal Democrats in the UK and the Liberal Party of Canada are centre and centre-left parties.

TNM: What makes you happy?

GB: Well, hanging out with my thirteen year old son always makes me happy. And I listen  to classical music and I go running.

TNM: And what makes  you angry?

GB: Injustice and the sheer  gutlessness of politicians in pursuing policies they know to be wrong but that the do not have any moral or intellectual courage to change.

TNM: Is this something  that has become worse in the past ten or fifteen years…

GB: Yes, I think it has. Paul Keating was the last serious reformist Prime Minister of this country. He was prepared to take on sacred cows like the monarchy and no-go areas like native title for example. We are  now in an appalling situation in this  country where politics is managed by people who are total careerists. Political ideology and philosophy has taken a back seat and we now see the pursuit of policies that are simply wrong but because they are popular in the tabloid media they are pursued.

One of the problems with politics in Australia now is that elections are determined in a small set of seats. They are marginal seats with aspirational voters who  tend to be quite socially conservative. So that is why  governments of all persuasions have now become socially conservative to the detriment of the community.

TNM: Dogs, cats, neither both or other?

GB: My son has a dog…(laughs)

TNM: Front-loader or top-loader?

GB: What does that mean?

TNM: What kind of washing machine? This is a true test of a man’s domestic skills and awareness…

GB: Ummm, a true test indeed. What have I got? A top-loader. I didn’t choose it, it came with the apartment I live in.

TNM: Sunday morning music?

GB: On Sunday mornings I get up and read the papers. I have a penchant for listening to long symphonies on Sunday mornings,  preferably Mahler, Shostakovich or Sibelius.

TNM: Saturday night music – before a night on the town?

GB: I tend not  to go out on Saturday nights but if I do  I love jazz and there is a very, very good trio that plays in a little place around the corner from my place in Hobart – The Steve Young Trio. They play at a place called Bosso & Boo in Battery Point.

TNM: And your Desert Island Disc?

GB: Just one? Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting. My second  choice would be Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas – the box set (laughs).

TNM: When did you last break the law?

GB: No comment on the grounds that it might incriminate me…

TNM: Oh, come on – even [Federal Court judge] Shane Marshall coughed up to that one…

GB: Did he? What did he say?

TNM: Driving offences…it seems that every one breaks the law in their car!

GB: Oh, okay then. I do have one. The Tasmanian Police, with nothing better to do at 12 minutes past midnight one night booked me for parking my car on yellow lines when there was not another car in sight…

TNM: You have been vocal in calling for sweeping drug law reform in this country, and this is something that the ALA is going to take up. What chances  of success do you give for that push and what barriers are in the way of sensible drug policy reform here?

GB: Look, I think that this is a long-term strategy but  that what is inevitable is that we will see the end of prohibition policies. They  are unsustainable. There is a global trend now to re-examine the policy of prohibition of drugs. It has been an abject failure. I think it  will happen in Australia. It will be an incremental change and it’ll  happen over the next decade. But it is inevitable.

TNM: And the fight needs to be brought on?

GB: Yes, you do need to bring these fights on and there are very few doctors and very few lawyers – who are working at the frontline of this issue – who believe in the current policy. So if the people at the frontline don’t believe in the policy why are we pursuing it.

TNM: In Australia we like our drugs, don’t we? I’ve seen some research from last century that indicated that we led the world in per capita consumption of narcotics –  cocaine and heroin in particular.

GB: Yes, heroin use was very high during those times. I think that  the issue here is that illicit drugs – and people use illicit drugs for a variety of reasons. It is not true to say that every  one who uses heroin is off their face twenty-four-seven. It is not true to say that everyone who uses cannabis can’t function as a normal human being. But there are issues about usage of drugs,  there are issues about how certain drugs interact with other forms of medication – and that is why it should be treated as a health problem.

TNM: As recently as ten or fifteen years ago there were moves towards liberalisation – personal  use limits were quite generous. You could grow your own plants and it was  bipartisan. Over the last ten or  fifteen years there seems to have been this real stiffening…

GB: Well, we have regressed in this country and a lot of the damage has been done by the Salvation Army, and by that I mean Major Brian Watters. He was John Howard’s senior advisor on drugs. In my view, he supported prohibition. This was surprising, coming from an organisation that at the front-line does not support that policy. We are heading  in the wrong direction in this country. If we look at countries like Portugal, the Czech Republic and a number of other countries in Europe and south America, there we are seeing real change.

TNM: And what do you think about the expansion of the medical use of cannabis in the Unites States?

GB: I think that there are fourteen states that have either  adopted it or are looking at adopting the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes. In the state of Maine this year laws were passed to allow medical use of  cannabis. We all know people who – for example multiple sclerosis sufferers, who take cannabis to relieve their pain. To deny those people that opportunity  is really inhumane, it is cruel and it defies the reality  of what is actually happening in the community.

TNM: We haven’t really had that debate about medical use of cannabis here.

GB: No, we haven’t – and what I think that says about Australia is that we are always lagging behind in this kind of debates. The Americans are having this debate – including in some quite conservative parts of that country. This is not confined to the liberal north-east of the United States.

TNM: So why Tasmania?

GB: I first went there initially in the mid-nineties to work in politics and then I went back there in 2002 to go into politics before  I had a big blow-up with the Liberal party over their policies on asylum seekers. I like  living in Tasmania – it is an interesting place. It is quite a socially progressive place. We are about to to introduce a Human Rights Act, we went from having  the most regressive laws on homosexuality to having the most liberal in Australia. It is a place where you can make a difference because it has a small population.

TNM: Finally, where do we go when we are dead?

GB: Well, I don’t practice Catholicism I probably still regard myself as a christian and I live in fear of going to hell.