The verdict: write in human rights

Alexandra Krummel

The report of the National Human Rights Consultation committee was released on October 8 to a full house at the Victorian Parliament. The report is very substantial with almost 500 pages and 31 recommendations.

The release of this landmark report signifies the end of the most extensive consultation on human rights in Australia’s history. The committee received 35,014 submissions and conducted 66 community roundtables and public hearings in 52 locations across Australia.

The consultation utilised new media to further engage with the public, including the consultation’s website, a Facebook page and an online forum facilitated by legal experts.

Two research projects were commissioned: the first involved a national telephone survey with a random sample of Australians and the second was to conduct focus group research into the experiences and opinions of marginalised and vulnerable groups who might not have otherwise been able to participate in the consultation. In early July 2009 the committee hosted public hearings over three days with more than 60 speakers participating in panel discussions and debates. Throughout the consultation the committee met with a diverse range of individuals and organisations.

The clearest finding for the committee was that Australians know little about their human rights — what they are, where they evolved from and how they are promoted and protected. It is not surprising, then, that the committee recommended ‘that education be the highest priority for improving and promoting human rights in Australia’.

The committee offers a number of recommendations as to how a human rights culture can be fostered and maintained in Australia. Most significantly, the committee recommends that Australia adopt a federal Human Rights Act which promotes a dialogue about human rights between the federal parliament, the executive and the judiciary.

In the report the committee states that a ‘Human Rights Act would redress the inadequacy of existing human rights protections’. Of the total submissions received by the committee, 32,091 discussed the option of a Charter of Rights or a Human Rights Act. Statistically well over 80 per cent of submissions received on the topic were in favour of a Human Rights Act, 27,888 to be precise. Liberty Victoria’s submission was one of those calling for the enactment of an Australian Human Rights Act.

Further, the committee recommended that a federal Human Rights Act should:

  • Protect civil and political rights and possibly social and economic rights, with priority given to the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to health and the right to education;
  • Require statements of compatibility for all Bills introduced into the federal parliament;
    Empower the proposed Joint Committee on Human Rights to review all Bills and legislative instruments for compliance with human rights;
  • Contain an interpretative provision that requires federal legislation to be interpreted in a way that is compatible with the human rights expressed in the Act and consistent with parliament’s purpose in enacting the legislation; and
  • Require Commonwealth public authorities to act in a manner compatible with human rights (excluding economic and social rights) and to give proper consideration to relevant human rights (including economic and social rights) when making decisions.

The Hon. Robert McClelland MP, Attorney-General, welcomed the report of the National Human Rights Consultation on behalf of the federal government. He said that the ‘debate is not about whether we protect human rights — it is about how we protect human rights’. The Australian government is now to ‘carefully consider the Committee’s report and outline its response in the coming months’. The time is now for the Government to act and write in human rights!

Alexandra Krummel is the Liberty Victoria office manager.