PROPERTY RIGHTS - UNDERVALUED!
Property rights are the most undervalued of all human rights, and they're eternally under attack by both State & Federal levels of government and, local authorities.
Debates over public policy rarely pivot on philosophical questions. But here's one: what does it actually mean to ''own'' your property?
Owners of 'fee simple' property are continually in dispute with governments over their being adequately compensated for native vegetation regulations that prevent them clearing surplus vegetation (trees) on their land. Which is fair enough?
Compensation for loss of property rights is addressed in the Australian Constitution, which clearly states:
'... Just terms'
However, native vegetation laws are state laws, and state constitutions do not require state governments to pay just compensation for property they acquire by acquisition. There are claims that these laws were enacted at the behest of the Federal Government, thus allowing Canberra to meet its Kyoto greenhouse emissions targets without the hassle of paying those who own the native vegetation carbon sinks (constitutional limitations on government power must be pretty annoying for political parties).
Certainly, the nuances of regulations governing the clearing of native vegetation sound uninteresting, but they're actually very important. A mountain of regulation imposed by State & Federal levels of government and, local authorities, is eroding one of our basic human rights... the right to own property.
This might seem a bit counter-intuitive. The Government doesn't literally take property away. Land-owners are not kicked off; they're still allowed to wander their land at leisure; they still hold the title. But the right to use the land has definitely been taken away.
Put it this way, what if the Government told you that you could keep your house, but couldn't live in it? Sure, you'd technically still own it, but you bought that house because you thought it would be a nice place to sleep. You don't really ''own'' it in any useful sense.
It's the same with farmland. Land-owners may not have been physically deprived of their land, but what's the point if they not allowed to farm it? And if land-owners are not compensated for this regulatory taking, how is it different from legalised theft?
In urban areas, planning regulations and heritage restrictions are increasingly onerous as state and local governments try to micro-manage the ''character'' of suburbs.
Karl Marx called the right to property ''the right of selfishness'', and property rights are believed by many to be a synonym for individualistic greed. Sounds like greed, looks like greed, sure - but it's not greed. More than anything else, property rights are essential for prosperity and growth. Nowhere is this clearer than in the developing world.
Influential Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has found that where property rights are not respected or recognised by governments and bureaucracies, countries are poor. After all, if you can't demonstrate you have assets to your name, it's very hard to get a loan to start a business. Property rights are the foundation of social mobility. Indeed, property is pretty much just another word for accumulated savings. Savings help us up the economic ladder. By contrast, a society that regularly violates property rights is an unstable society and one where the road to personal advancement is blocked.
The right to property is so important it has long been recognised as one of our basic human rights, like free speech or the right to a fair trial. The 17th century philosopher John Locke said we had three fundamental rights: life, liberty, and ''estate'' - property.
But in the late 20th century, the right to property became the mistreated stepchild of human rights law.
In 1948, property rights got their own article in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (''No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property''). But when they finally got around to turning the declaration into a legally binding commitment in 1966, property was thought to be passť: neither the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights nor the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights mention property rights.
The European Convention of Human Rights says ''no one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest''. The phrase ''public interest'' is meaningless. What government has ever thought it wasn't acting in the public interest? The 2006 Victorian Charter of Rights says no one's property can be taken ''except in accordance with law'' - not much of a defence from eager legislators.
RETURN TO: PROPERTY RIGHTS in AUSTRALIA