Capital punishment still has majority support in Australia : Comments

By Sinclair Davidson and Tim Fry, published 16/10/2007
*        Sinclair Davidson is a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and Professor in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University.
*        Professor Tim Fry is Professor Of Econometrics at RMIT University's School of Economics, Finance and Marketing.

The death penalty has been reignited, if only briefly, as an Australian election issue. Just days before the fifth anniversary of the Bali bombings that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians and wounded a further 209, the ALP called for a concerted and consistent regional campaign against the death penalty.

It has been bipartisan policy that the Australian government opposes the death penalty in Australia and opposes the execution of Australians overseas. Even Mark Latham supported that policy. Indeed, Mark Latham had no objections to the execution of Saddam Hussein. According to shadow foreign affairs minister Ian McClelland elements within the ALP do now have objections. They apparently object too to the execution of the Bali bombers.

Kevin Rudd was very quick to over-rule his shadow foreign minister. The speech had been vetted by his office, but such a fundamental change in policy, it seems, went unnoticed. More likely the Australian’s front page coverage spooked Rudd. It won’t do to be seen to be soft of terrorism.

What is quite remarkable is the notion that “Australia opposes capital punishment”. It is not at all clear that everyday Australians oppose the death penalty. Recall the outbreak of joy and exuberance when Bali bomber Amrozi was sentenced to death. Recall the anger when Abu Bakar Bashir received a light prison sentence. Opposition to the death penalty is an elitist concern.

According to the 2004 Australian Election Study, 51 per cent of Australians support the reintroduction of the death penalty for murder. That is down from nearly 68 per cent in 1993 and 66.3 per cent in 1996. So support for the death penalty has eroded during the Howard era. Nonetheless a majority of Australians apparently still support capital punishment.

There is a massive amount of economic literature that investigates the incentive effects of the death penalty. The question being, does it deter further murders? In other words, does the execution of a murderer prevent still more people from being murdered?

If yes, then a strong case exists for capital punishment. Indeed, many supporters of the death penalty do so for that very reason. If no, however, then there is little rational basis for execution. As a punishment it does not rehabilitate offenders, but it does prevent recidivism. The empirical evidence is contested. Economists have debated the evidence for over 30 years, and tempers fray quickly.

Rather than enter into that debate we looked at the demand for the death penalty, especially in light of concerns about terrorism. We make the reasonable assumption that terrorism involves mass murder. We made use of the Australian Election Survey from the 2001 and 2004 elections. National security issues have been at the forefront of voters’ minds at the last two elections.

The 2001 election took place in the immediate aftermath of September 11, and the 2004 election after the Bali bombings. During the campaign the Australian embassy was bombed, with the loss nine lives, but no Australians.

We control for factors such as age, gender, political persuasion, and national pride in our analysis. For example, older people, males, right-wingers and extreme patriots are more likely to support capital punishment, while practising Christians are less likely to do so. In particular, we were interested in concern for terrorism and attitude towards the death penalty.

It turns out, everything else being equal, that those individuals who thought, at the 2001 and 2004 elections, that terrorism was an extremely important issue had a 55.3 per cent higher level of support for the re-introduction of capital punishment. At the last election that constituted 51 per cent of the electorate.

The bottom line is this: it doesn’t pay in electoral terms to oppose the execution of terrorists. The ALP should have realised that before McClelland’s speech. That, of course, is not the same issue as opposing the execution of drug mules. Unfortunately, our data is very specific - it only looks at murder and not other crimes.

The electorate is quite capable of making nuanced distinctions. It is not unreasonable for the Australian government to oppose the execution of Australians overseas. It might be somewhat undemocratic not to allow capital punishment within Australia, but the prime minister did raise that issue in August 2003 and no state government, nor state opposition wanted to have that debate. It seems neither does Kevin Rudd.


The death penalty should be imposed for very serious crimes like that of "abduction, rape and murder". It should especially apply to the abduction and murder of children.
Daniel Miles has now been convicted of the murder of Yolande Michael while on the run from a NSW prison. He had escaped from prison where he was serving time for the murder of 16 year old Donna Newland.

In the mid sixties, Leonard Keith Lawson was released from prison after abducting and murdering a 15 year old girl. While on parole he raped and murdered 15 year old, Mary Jane Bower, at Collaroy, in Sydney. With the police looking for him, he entered SCEGGS girls school in Bowral, and attempted to abduct a schoolgirl. In the struggle with a heroic teacher, he fired a sawn off rifle several times, wounding the female teacher and killing 15 year old, Wendy Luscombe.

When Gordon Barry Hadlow was released from a Queensland prison after 22 years, for the rape and murder of a six year old girl, Samantha Dorothy Bacon, he then abducted, raped, and murdered a 9 year old girl, Sharon Margaret Hamilton.

Had these three child rapist murderers been executed, four young women would still be alive today. The attitude of the anti death penalty brigade is curious. The lives of the worst kinds of criminals are sacrosanct. Only the lives of the innocent are expendable. Capital punishment definitely stops repeat offenders.

Another reason for the death penalty is that is an effective tool for the fight against international organised crime. Hired murderers should be executed as there is no excuse for such behaviour. As for the crime bosses who order the executions, they too must be executed for the protection of the community. Failure to do so would see a situation develop where criminal bosses run their criminal organisations from jail and order the execution of judges, prosecutors, politicians, journalists and witnesses. This is already happening in Italy and in many South American countries that have no death penalty. It must not happen here.
Posted by redneck, Thursday, 18 October 2007 5:20:05 AM


Human beings are emotional organisms, Phanto. And we do not like it when people abduct, rape and kill our children. 

The reason why the murder of a child is considered more despicable than the murder of an adult is because children are considered innocent, are defenceless against an adult male, and are every societies most precious resource. 

We already do make decisions about punishment based upon the identity of a victim. Any criminal who attacks a child or a frail elderly person will not only be more severely punished in the courts, even his fellow criminals in jail will spit on him. And yes, the circumstances of Victor Chang's murder would make the offenders prime candidates for the noose. 

If all life is sacrosanct, then we must immediately disarm the Australian Army and replace their Steyr rifles with frying pans.  

In Australia today, several hundred mostly young people are dying of heroin overdoses each year. If several hundred Australians were being killed every year by a foreign power, this country would be at war. We would do everything possible to kill our enemies and prevent these attacks upon our citizenry. We would blow our enemies to pieces, burn them to death with napalm, shoot them, and bury them alive. Yet Phanto (another comment provider) objects to doing exactly the same thing to the predators who have declared war upon their own society and who actively prey upon it. 

As a former soldier, I was given official instruction on how to kill the enemies of my people. Many of the enemy soldiers that I was trained and expected to kill would be decent, brave men just doing their duty. It beggars the mind for anyone in society to claim that it is OK to mow down brave enemy soldiers who fight you face to face.  

You can kill them by the thousands. Even in the tens of thousands and get medals for doing it. But when it comes to aeroplane bombers, hired murderers, terrorists, child rapist murderers, serial killers, mob bosses, drug traffickers and traitors, taking their worthless lives is a sin.

Bovine excretia.
Posted by redneck, Friday, 19 October 2007 5:05:20 AM


Real soldiers disagree with you, Mr Hamlet. The diggers in the First AIF called themselves "Two bob a day murderers." 

Whatever silly justification you use, you are claiming that killing external enemies is OK, but killing internal enemies is not OK. 

I would also point out that soldiers wear uniforms while criminals do not. If child abductor/rapists, aeroplane bombers, terrorists, mob bosses, hired murderers, armed robbers, and heroin importers wore uniforms which allowed them to be shot on sight, then I might be persuaded to be lenient on them if they surrendered.

Posted by redneck, Monday, 22 October 2007 5:06:41 AM