The rights way forward for Australia

Spencer Zifcak

LATE last year, the Rudd Government made good on its promise to establish a national consultation on human rights. The purpose of the consultation is to make recommendations to the Federal Government and Parliament about how Australians’ human rights might best be protected.

A consultation panel has been selected. It is chaired by Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest with a long history of involvement in Aboriginal and refugee issues; Mary Kostakides, the former SBS news anchor; Mick Palmer, former Australian Federal Police Commissioner; and Tammy Williams, a Queensland barrister of Aboriginal descent.

The principal question before the panel will be whether Australia should enact a Human Rights Act setting down the fundamental human rights Australians should possess and providing mechanisms for their implementation and enforcement.

Remarkably, Australia is the only Western democracy which does not have comprehensive statutory or constitutional protection of people’s human rights. Every other comparable nation does. These countries include Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

The principal arguments for the adoption of such an Act are that it would improve the quality and accountability of government; it would consolidate and strengthen human rights protections for all Australians; it would encourage social inclusion; it would improve Australia’s reputation abroad; and it would constitute one effective, legal and political response to human rights violations that have taken place and are taking place in contemporary Australian society.

Presently, the favoured model for a Human Rights Act is that adopted 10 years ago in Britain. Under this model, the Act would set down the fundamental human rights to be protected. These would include, for example, freedom of speech, assembly, association and movement; freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief; the right to privacy and to fair trial; and the right to life, liberty and security.

From the time of the Act’s adoption, every law passed by the Federal Parliament would have to be compatible with the preservation of these rights. And, every agency of government would have to act in its dealings with members of the public in a manner that is consistent with them, that is, in a manner that is consistent with respect for and the dignity of the people with whom they interact.

The Courts would have a role in determining whether a law passed by the Parliament is consistent with the Human Rights Act and in deciding whether an agency of government has breached its obligations when dealing with the public. Where, however, a law is determined to be inconsistent with the Act, the matter would be referred back to the Parliament for reconsideration. In this way, the ultimate sovereignty of the Parliament would be preserved.

Presently, the favoured model for a Human Rights Act is that adopted 10 years ago in Britain. This model has worked exceptionally well in Britain and is worthy of replication here.

The national consultation panel is taking submissions on this and other questions until 31 May. Submissions may be made through the panel’s website (; through the GetUp and Amnesty websites; or by letter or email to the consultation panel’s mailing address.

Further information on the Campaign for a Federal Human Rights Act can be obtained at the website of the national campaign ( and the Australian Human Rights Group ( Detailed guidance on how to write a submission is available on the website of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre (

Spencer Zifcak is a vice-president of Liberty and a professor at the Australian Catholic University.