A Human Rights Act for Australia


An Australian Human Rights Act cannot be put off any longer.

New Matilda readers are all too aware of recent erosions of our rights. The anti terrorism laws should never have been enacted without stronger protections for individuals. Shocked as we are by the sagas of despair coming out of mandatory detention, or wrongful treatment by immigration agencies of citizens and asylum seekers, these sagas continue, apparently with official sanction.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thousands of words have appeared in New Matilda and in other democratic forums bewailing the failure of our national government to abide by international conventions. The harsh reality is that ratification of conventions does not of itself create any new, legally enforceable rights, nor any new legal protections of existing rights.

Horrific as they are, practices in detention centres, like the official mistreatment of those incapacitated by mental illness, are in most cases legal. Heartless deportation of families, years of destructive mandatory detention, the absence of health and education support for the detained, all of this is within the law.

Moral suasion, public outcry, the admirable work of many Australians on behalf of those suffering rights abuses, none of this to date has effected any legal or policy change. The government can continue to act as it has done without penalty. And it intends to. The only way to stop human rights abuses here, to make the international conventions locally effective, is to change the law.

New Matilda is supporting a campaign to achieve just that: to get enacted a Human Rights Act for Australia.

Australia is now the only western country without a Bill of Rights. Canada, the UK and New Zealand have all legislated nationally to enforce their international human rights obligations. Even the ACT has a Human Rights Act, and the Victorian Government has set up a public consultation exercise in preparation for a Victorian bill. There are plenty of models for Australia.

So that we can harness the active support of our readers and all who share our objective of legal change, a New Matilda working group is preparing a draft bill for a Human Rights Act for Australia. George Williams did initial work on a draft before being appointed as Chair of the Victorian Human Rights Consultation Committee. Spencer Zifcak and others with expertise and experience in human rights law are preparing the draft bill for circulation. It will embody our international obligations under instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. It will take account of the UK, Canadian and New Zealand initiatives, and the ACT Act.

Our first step is to present you with a draft bill for discussion. The bill will be technically robust, comprehensive in its scope, practical, and able to fit without problems into our legal framework.

Recognising the deep interest and extensive human rights knowledge among our readers, we will invite debate, suggestions, and amendments to the draft from you. We will consult other human rights bodies, relevant NGO’s, indigenous rights groups and engaged Church groups. In light of these consultations we will refine the draft.

The second phase of our campaign for a Human Rights Act involves gathering petitions to both houses of parliament, urging that our draft be presented as a Private Member’s Bill, debated and brought to a vote. This will be an all party action. The recent developments with Petro Georgiou’s Private Member’s Bill to end mandatory detention suggest that a strong element in the Liberal Party may cooperate with us, along with the minority parties and Labor.

We are seeking the active assistance of all human rights supporters in Australia. We want to see the Parliament flooded by thousands of petitions from community groups, students, unions, professional bodies, party political organizations and everyone who agrees that it is time to change the law.

This is a long term, active strategy. We hope to have the bill presented and debated in parliament within twelve months from its launch. It may not pass the first time. We will persist with a second and, if necessary, a third presentation, until the bill has the numbers. Public opinion does matter. Politicians eventually respond to it. If our bill, which we intend to be the product of extensive community discussion and debate, gets widespead active support from the electorate, it will eventually become law. Then all within Australia will be able to exercise fully their human rights.

Please let us know what you think, and what you can do to support our campaign.

George Williams’ book The Case for an Australian Bill of Rights discusses the ideas behind the bill. Link here.

Go here – for a new discussion paper on the Victorian process toward human rights legislation.

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