The New Matilda Campaign, article by Nick Carney


In January this year, two comments were posted in response to an article in New Matilda entitled ‘No Way Out: the High Court and Children in Detention’. The article was one of many that focused on the Federal Government’s inhumane policy of mandatory detention for children of asylum seekers. The author, Spencer Zifcak, considered two then-recent proceedings in which the High Court of Australia had found that the ‘Commonwealth Government (had) the constitutional and statutory authority to detain children mandatorily – even for years.’

Zifcak, although appalled by the practice, agreed that the court’s conclusions ‘were clearly right.’ How could this be? The highest court in the land powerless to stop the Federal Government from locking up children behind razor wire?

Zifcak’s answer was that Australia’s Constitution affords very limited protection for human rights. Our international human rights obligations (which derive from various international covenants, to which we have been a signatory since 1966) have never been incorporated into domestic law – so they have no effect! Without constitutional or statutory protection for human rights, the Australian people must trust the parliament to make laws for the good governance of the country and have no recourse if it does not.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Zifcak went on to suggest that, if Australia had a Charter of Rights, the High Court would have reached a different decision.

Australia is the only Western country that does not have such a Charter.

The first comment on the Zifcak article pointed to a disparity between the generosity of Australians in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami and our lack of compassion in relation to asylum seekers. It echoed many previous comments.

The second comment was quite different. It proposed that something be done to change the situation. It proposed that New Matilda initiate a campaign for a Federal Charter of Rights.

Next Wednesday, 5 October 2005, at 6:30pm, at the Sydney Town Hall, New Matilda will launch its campaign for a Human Rights Act for Australia.

New Matilda has prepared a draft Bill that incorporates Australia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESRC) among others. This process was coordinated by Associate Professor Spencer Zifcak (author of the article that spawned the campaign) and Professor George Williams, until his appointment as Chair of the Victorian Human Rights Consultation Committee.

The draft Bill has been considered by a number of leading human rights lawyers including Dr Helen Watchirs, Brian Walers SC, Jo Swarzc and Professor Hillary Charlesworth. We believe it is technically sound and could be enacted by Federal Parliament tomorrow if it so desired.

The launch on 5 October will unveil and present this draft Human Rights Bill to the Australian community and will involve the following distinguished speakers:
Spencer Zifcak on the rights protected by the Bill and the ways in which they are protected;
The Right Honourable Malcolm Fraser AC CH will address the need for a federal Human Rights Act;
Professor Larissa Behrendt, of UTS’s Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, will speak on the importance of a Human Rights Act for Indigenous communities;
Elizabeth Evatt AC, Australia’s International Commission of Jurists Commissioner in Geneva, will explain how the United Nations fits into the picture;
Waleed Aly, of the Islamic Council of Victoria, will address the protections that a Human Rights Act would provide to minorities;
Greg Combet, the Secretary of the ACTU, will explore how a Human Rights Act would protect the rights of workers.

Nahid Karimi will also speak on the night. She is a Year 12 student at Holroyd High School. She came to Australia as an asylum seeker after escaping from Afghanistan and was held in Port Headland Detention Centre. It is fitting that someone who has been subjected to the very policies that prompted this campaign, and who has achieved so much despite this, should be addressing the audience.

Susan Ryan, Chair of the Campaign Committee and the person who made the second comment to Spencer Zifcak’s article, and John Menadue, Chair of New Matilda, will also address the audience about the goals that the campaign has set itself, the consultation phase, and the plan for future launches.

The issue in January was the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and particularly children. Community concern forced some changes in these areas and current policies are less oppressive. But there is a new issue that affects all of us – not just a small minority of foreigners.

The anti-terror laws that the Federal Government is proposing strike at the heart of the rule of law and the protection of human rights. ‘Preventative detention’ sounds a lot like mandatory detention – but now it applies to all Australian citizens. ‘Control orders’ sound like something out of a totalitarian state. Maybe such measures are needed; maybe the threat of terror is that bad. I just don’t know because I don’t receive national security updates.

A Human Rights Act would not stop the federal parliament from protecting Australia and Australians from terrorism, but it would require that they inform the public of what they are proposing, how it compares to recognised international human rights standards, why specifically these measures are needed, and for how long they will exist. We can’t rely on the Opposition to raise these issues; it is busy trying to trump the Government with proposals of suburban lockdowns and the like.

If you are an Australian with concerns about the asylum seeker issue, the anti-terror proposals, discrimination, the treatment of Indigenous people, maintaining workers’ rights and the rights of families, then support the New Matilda campaign by coming along next week to the launch or by registering on the New Matilda site for campaign updates. There are plans for follow-up launches in other Australian cities in the near future.

Attendance to the launch is free, but we are encouraging people to register online at If you haven’t registered yet, then do so now because numbers are limited and demand is strong. Please forward the link to friends and family.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.