Parliamentary Scrutiny of Human Rights – A Bridge Too Far?

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That Australia is the only democracy in the world without a law to protect human rights is not a situation that can persist forever. So thinks most of the community. As far as our parliament is concerned, it has been very slow to respond to the need to legislate better protection of rights, in particular those rights we signed up to so long ago, through the major UN rights conventions on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

In the current absence of significant support in the federal parliament for an Australian Human Rights Act, we may still see some progress if the modest recommendations from the Brennan report for improving parliamentary scrutiny of human rights are enacted.

While rejecting the major recommendation from the Brennan national consultation on human rights for an Australian Human Rights Act, the Rudd government decided to put in place a human rights framework.

The framework, announced by Attorney-General Robert McClelland in April 2010 includes parliamentary scrutiny, a new requirement for ministers introducing legislation to report on compatibility with seven core human rights conventions, a review of terrorism legislation, and community education and training of the bureaucracy in human rights recognition and respect.

The Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Bill 2010 and a consequential bill were reintroduced by the Gillard government on 30 September 2010, and referred to the Senate legal and constitutional committee. The Committee has conducted a public inquiry into the bill and will report soon.

The Brennan consultation, from which these scrutiny and education recommendations arise, had received a historic number of submissions, close to 40, 000, with most favouring legal protection of rights.

Again with the current senate committee inquiry, numerous submissions from the community argued for the enactment of these modest measures.

Community bodies like the Australian Human Rights Group hope that once in place, these scrutiny and education measures will strengthen our legislators’ awareness of human rights and the Commonwealth’s responsibilities to individuals. They will improve national focus on human rights problems and lead to better formulated laws.

By 2014, the designated date for a review of the human rights framework, experience from these changes should mean that the debate about an act will be better informed and more positive.

It is not clear at this stage, however, that the mild but helpful provisions under committee consideration will be supported within parliament. As far as objective research can establish, most of the Australian community supports reform.

As far as objective research can establish, most of the Australian community supports reform.

The only organised opposition has come from particular Christian groups more concerned with stopping gay marriage and legal abortion than with the needs of the homeless, disabled, mentally ill and other vulnerable individuals who can and do get badly treated by the Commonwealth and its agents.

If parliament fails to put even these modest requirements for better scrutiny and recognition of Australia’s existing human rights obligations into law, the community will become even more jaded and cynical about our politicians. Many in our society will never accept that some people have fewer rights than others, or that anybody in our community should be afforded less respect, dignity or fairness than the rest of us.

Many in our society will never accept that some people have fewer rights than others, or that anybody in our community should be afforded less respect, dignity or fairness than the rest of us

Those people see parliament as having a fundamental responsibility to use its powers to protect the rights of vulnerable people.

By enacting the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Bill, the parliament would rebuild some confidence in the community. And such a law would surely diminish the extent to which individuals’ rights are overlooked or damaged.

Susan Ryan AO is the Chair of the Australian Human Rights Group. From 1975-1988 she was Senator for the ACT and became the first woman to hold a cabinet post in a federal Labour Government. In 2010 she was appointed Women’s Ambassador for ActionAid Australia. More information about the Australian Human Rights Group can be found at www.humanrightsact.com.au

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