By Bec Devitt and Eva Csik

23 March 2012

Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights Established

The Australian Federal Parliament this week established the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights following the passage of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011 earlier this month. The joint committee has been established to “examine Bills for Acts and legislation for compatibility with Human Rights.”

South Australian Greens Senator Penny Wright who has been appointed to the Human Rights Committee said “it is vital the committee acts as more than a rubber stamp and must ensure legislation is properly considered in the light of human rights standards which will benefit us all. Human rights groups have called on the committee to investigate the Northern Territory Intervention legislation, Stronger Futures as its first task.

Rally against Northern Territory Intervention

Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation delivered a petition signed by 33,000 Australians to Federal Parliament on the 21st of March protesting new legislation introduced by the Gillard government to extend measures in the Northern Territory intervention by 10 years.

The legislation passed last month in the House of Representatives includes extended alcohol restrictions and continues limits on courts considering cultural practice or customary law in sentencing decisions.  The Stronger Futures legislation, which will replace previous laws is aimed at reducing disadvantage in Aboriginal communities however the Australian Hotels Association says Northern Territory pubs are being treated as scapegoats under the new legislation.

The Stronger Futures legislation gives assessors the power to investigate venues such as clubs to examine whether they are contributing to problem drinking. A Senate Committee report tabled last week stated that tougher penalties for alcohol offences could increase the already high rates of indigenous incarceration and recommended that minor offences be dealt with through infringement notices. Damien Curtis director of Stand for Freedom said people in the Northern Territory were at breaking point, “five years of failed policy…created despair and disempowerment that is killing them.”

The 22nd of March also marked National Close the Gap Day with more than 120,00 people across Australia taking part in efforts to close the health gap between Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.

Occupy Melbourne challenges the right to protest in the Federal Court

The Occupy Melbourne movement has made a constitutional challenge in the Federal Court on the right to protest. The constitutional challenge invoking the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and the right to freedom of political communication implied under the Australian constitution could have national and international implications if successful.

The laws, which allowed Melbourne City Council and Victoria police to issue notices to protestors were in breach of human rights according to Human Rights lawyer Anna Brown. She said the case was an “important test case on human rights which could set an important precedent for how local authorities respond to protests around the world.”

Barrister Ron Merkel QC said the case raised fundamental questions about the principles of political communication, which had not been tested by Australian courts and that at issue “was the very essence of right of the public to agitate for change in the political process.”

Australia targeted in campaign to end the immigration detention of children

A campaign by leading human rights and refugee advocate groups has called for the detention of refugee children to be outlawed. Australian organization including Amnesty International, Save the Children and Chillout have called for all child asylum seekers be released as part of a global campaign following the launch of a report by the International Detention Coalition (IDC) on children in detention.

The report Captured Childhood, states that tens of thousands of children around the world including 500 in Australia are deprived of their freedom and locked up in immigration detention because they do not have the right documentation. The report calls for nations to develop laws and practices, which ensure that asylum seeker children are free to reside in the community while their cases are assessed. The report states that the “detention of children is the denial of their fundamental right to liberty and that immigration detention has a profoundly negative impact on children’s physical and psychological development.”

Federal Government not doing enough on the rights of the elderly

Australia’s Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan told a forum at the New South Wales Parliament House that the government should give higher priority to joining a call for a United Nation’s convention protecting the rights of seniors. Commissioner Ryan giving a keynote address at the elderly rights forum urged employers to tackle age discrimination while there is a skills shortage.

The forum was held to mark National Seniors Week and Ian Day CEO of the Council on the Ageing (COTA) NSW welcomed the work of the United Nations to establish a legally binding human rights convention for older people.

“Too often older people are treated as though they have needs, not rights. This has big implications. We need to see a big shift in the way that society sees older people.”

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

March 21st marked the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and Harmony Day in Australia.  The Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr.Helen Szoke called upon all Australians to battle racism in the community.

“Today is a day to celebrate our cultural diversity and an opportunity to do what we can to make Australia an even greater place to live.” Dr.Szoke stated.

Harmony Day began in 1999 to celebrate the inclusive nature of Australia and is aimed at promoting tolerance and cultural diversity.  The Federal government has set up a National Anti-Racism Partnership to develop a national anti-racism strategy.

This month Right Now has been focusing on Race & Discrimination to coincide with celebrations on March 21st. This includes articles on the multicultural success of community broadcasting and the legal systems approach to tackling racial discrimination. This can be accessed here.

ACT passes laws to force the removal of Burqas

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Legislative Assembly has passed new laws that will give ACT police greater powers to remove head coverings in circumstances such as random drug tests, traffic offences and applications for drivers licence.  However women who wear a head covering such as a burqa for religious or cultural reasons can request that it only be removed in the presence of female police officers or in a private place in accordance with their beliefs.

ACT Attorney General Simon Corbell said the laws were not intended to target specific cultural or religious groups.

Proposed mental health laws in Western Australia up for debate

Proposed mental health laws in Western Australia could see children as young as 12 be able to consent to psychotherapy and sterilization without parental consent. The Western Australian government released its draft of the Mental Health Bill Act 2011 for public comment and it has been met with much criticism from the opposition and rights groups.

Labor opposition leader Mark McGowan says the government must redraft the bill immediately as it risks putting the rights of mental health consumers, carers and parents in danger.

The Western Australian Children’s Commissioner has also raised concerns about the bill urging the government to ensure that the rights of children and young people are protected stating that “given the complexity and extent of the issues covered by the Bill, it is vital that we ensure every aspect of the legislation is in the best interests of these vulnerable children and young people.”


Disabled people are denied a voice in court: Changes are taking too long

Charges of sexual assault against an offender were dropped because the victims, mentally disabled children, were not allowed an interpreter in court. This loop hole in the South Australian Evidence Act 1929 which does not allow for the mentally disabled an interpreter is letting many offenders get away with their crimes and putting the mentally disabled in a terribly vulnerable position.

This concern is not a new one. Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner, Leena Sudano (who has in recent days stepped down from the position) has expressed for several years within the health, aged-care and criminal justice systems, that victims were not getting their day in court because of communication difficulties and a belief that there was little chance of conviction. Ms Sudano has also suggested that there have been a number of incidents in which police have not been able to lay charges despite the wishes of the alleged victim.

Not only is it deeply distressing for many victims and their loved ones that this loop hole exists but it is also of considerable concern and causing much confusion as to why it is taking so long to amend the Act. In June 2011 Attorney-General John Rau pledged to release new draft laws within two months. Mr Rau said the changes would alter the balance of the Act, so judges would allow the evidence while making specific directions to the jury about how to deal with the information.

In November 2011 Mr Rau commented on the measures proposed by the state government stating that the proposals included alternative ways of taking and receiving evidence and limiting the number of times victims and witnesses were required to recount their experiences. Mr Rau also stated that Police will get special training on how to conduct interviews with children and the intellectually disabled who are witnesses in cases involving sexual or violent offences.

The section of the Evidence Act which the amendments are to be made is 34CA. This section currently places severe restrictions on evidence which can be heard by ‘protected witnesses’. A ‘protected witness’ is either a young child or a person with a mental disability that adversely affects their capacity to coherently communicate their experiences.

Eight months on and this injustice is still taking place. Child Protection expert Freda Briggs has stated that concerns over the mishandling of child sex abuse cases was in fact raised as far back as 1995. NAPCAN, a national organisation for child protection conducted a study back in 1995 and the report recommends “that all child sex abuse cases be removed from the current criminal system and put into a separate court which will be inquisitorial on the lines of a coronial enquiry where all of the evidence could be investigated, not just the evidence that a judge chooses for the jury to know about.” Ms Briggs also states that a number of years ago it was shown that children with disabilities are 700 per cent more vulnerable to abuse yet absolutely nothing has been done about it.

This month it was reported that amendments to the act to allow hearsay evidence were put forward last year but lapsed when parliament was prorogued. Mr Rau says they are still consulting with the Law Society and disability interest groups regarding the proposed changes. These important changes will certainly make a big difference to children with disabilities that are victims of sexual abuse but also it will also allow all people with disabilities in all cases to have their story heard.


Review – Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia

By Georgia Cerni

Sophie Cousins’ book Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia is, in many respects, a proposal. For Cousins, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided Australians with an opportunity to reconsider the ways our society currently functions. Cousins aptly makes her case – while in some ways the pandemic reinforced burgeoning inequalities, it also presented us the chance to apply collectivist values to solve systemic problems.