Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Behind the smile of Seona

from w
Here's another article I pinched from the Fiji Times, this time by Seona Smiles, the very funny journalist who writes from the point of view of a family in Flagstaff, Suva. Beyond or behind the jokiness though there's something to ponder in this article - the Magna Carta, personal freedom and so on. Good on you, Seona.
Charter of liberty
Seona Smiles
Sunday, November 21, 2010

I set house rules, but they might just as well have been the Fiji Constitution. When the daughters were infants, I made it simple, like the doctors'oath: first do no harm. This meant "don't damage stuff or irritate anyone else, especially the cat and more especially, me."

Yet no sooner would I be steaming away over a hot keyboard or talking about important things to a friend on the phone when a childish voice would pipe persistently in my ear, like a basketball bouncing off the side of my skull: "mum, mum, mum, mum, hey mum, mum.." Eventually the child would get the attention it deserved, trust me. Then she would go off and complain to her Aaji, which at least kept her out of my hair for a while.

Later the rules became more sophisticated: no drinking under 18, no sex before 35, no drugs ever.They laughed, poured another glass of wine and went out with their boyfriends while I stayed home and got stuck into the Panadol. But as far as I know, neither of them is a triple axe murderer, has a lifestyle disease or has joined Hillsong, so maybe something worked.

Which brings me eventually to a reluctant respect for the rule of law, even if the quality of mercy is somewhat strained, not to mention the quality of justice. The big deal in law is the Magna Carta, now rocking up to its 800th anniversary. You may say, like British comedian Tony Hancock: "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?" Or "bless her and all who sail in her" because a luxury barge plying the Thames is indeed named Magna Carta. It probably docks at Runnymead, a boggy place in England where in 1215 Bad King John was bullied by a gang of barons to sign up to certain rights and freedoms on something that looks like a dirty vest or old sheepskin.

Loosely translated, MC probably means 'Piece of Paper'. It was supposed to stave off a civil war, which it didn't.

But it did become what some see as the starting point for democracy (never mind the Greeks) and embodied an important principle that remains to this day: that all people, including the king (or equivalent, say, Rajah or Ratu) are subject to law.

This has been controversial in Fiji from time to time, but by and large, works.

There is another bit in the MC that stuck around long enough to become the legal remedy of habeus corpus, with which we are familiar in Fiji during politically difficult periods.

According to last month's London Review of Books, habeus corpus has in recent years lost much of its practical importance.

Not because judges are less protective of personal liberty, but because the function of hc has to a large extent been subsumed within versatile and extensive judicial review.

However a striking feature of hc, according to the Review, is that "in times of perceived emergency, when the security of the people is trumpeted as the highest political imperative, personal freedom, and with it the remedy of habeas corpus, are its first casualties."

Despite the fact that by the second half of the 19th century nearly all the Magna Carta clauses had been repealed in their original form, it is generally considered part of the uncodified constitution (of Britian, which famously doesn't have a constitution).

Lord Denning, of Fiji"s Denning Report fame, described it as "the greatest constitutional document of all times - the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot."

And good luck with that.

Some of its clauses are better off being repealed, for instance those that dealt with Jews who were able to lend money because they were unconstrained by Christian teachings on usury.

I don't know what happened to that, maybe bank bosses don't go to church or maybe it is perfectly Christian to charge "fees".

Anyway, Jews were not allowed to charge children interest on an inherited debt and widows and children had to be provided for before paying off an inherited debt, which actually sounds good to me and would serve right all those banks who wouldn't lend to women.

You could leave the kingdom without prejudicing allegiance except for outlaws; the king's hostages had to be returned (good one for Sudanese pirates and Middle East kidnappers); unjust fines had to be remitted (take heed, LTA); and there was something about the restoration of disseised Welshmen, but I don't know either what it means or any Welsh persons.

I think it is something to do with land and probably not useful in Fiji.

The clause I liked best was the abolition of all evil customs connected with forests.

What were they doing behind the bushes in 1215?

Or maybe, like today's environmental protection laws, the clause was intended to prevent destruction of the planet.

The Magna Carta is such a big deal that the anniversary celebrations are starting now and running through the next five years, to 2015.

It would be excellent for Fiji to spend the time discussing and sorting the basic concepts and freedoms of the MC as applying to a modern developing country.

This time let's try to have something that we don't throw out in the first five minutes, but that will last at least as long as the magna carta.

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