The launch of New Matilda‘s campaign for a Human Rights Act for Australia on 5 October 2005 was privileged to be addressed by ten distinguished speakers. Appropriately, in their discussions of universal human rights, the speakers brought with them different narratives, backgrounds and perspectives, yet ultimately they were unified by themes and ideas.
A number of speakers, including Waleed Aly and Greg Combet , spoke of the role of a Human Rights Act as a reflection of Australian values. These values were outlined by Professor Spencer Zifcak as primarily those of egalitarianism, fairness, democracy, and freedom. A Human Rights Act would enshrine such values into law, and in so doing, would provide the legally enforceable counterparts to such moral values. However, the effect of the Act would go beyond the mere creation of legal rights and remedies. The Act would also affirm and proclaim those same values in a particularly meaningful way.
It seems appropriate that the law should reflect our values. In this vein, a number of speakers, including Professor Larissa Behrendt, spoke of the need for a Human Rights Act to make Australia a decent society, or ‘the best society that we can be’. If the law exists to regulate the affairs of persons in a society, how can anyone argue that the law should not reflect the values of that society? Why should Australian law not uphold the decency of Australian society?
Without a Human Rights Act, Australian law fails to truly reflect our values and decency.
A number of speakers, including the Right Hon Malcolm Fraser, discussed the recent response to terrorism of the Federal Government. Waleed Aly described it as a ‘dynamic of stupidity.’ In the name of protecting freedom, we are being stripped of the very civil liberties which underscore our freedom. A truly free society is not one which sanctions the arbitrary detention of some in the name of the protection of the majority.
Australia’s detention of asylum seekers was also a target of many of the addresses. In this respect it is worth noting that New Matilda‘s draft Bill does not make the possession or enforcement of human rights conditional upon citizenship, residency, or other legal authority. For human rights to be truly human, they must apply to all who come within the purview of the government and its institutions. Nahid Karimi provided her own personal account of life in detention. Fair and humane treatment of asylum seekers is not only the just and decent course, but also, as Nahid herself is living proof, one which may result in Australia welcoming intelligent persons to our shores, who will contribute greatly to our society.
The night commenced with a Welcome to Country by Rob Welsh, as representative of the Gadigal nation, the traditional owners of the land on which Sydney Town Hall stands. Our treatment of Indigenous Australians is a sorry part of our history, and this flagrant violation of human rights was referenced by a number of speakers. A Human Rights Act may well be a platform for further reconciliation and redress of past wrongs against Indigenous Australians.
How is it possible that a nation such as Australia abused Indigenous inhabitants while at the same time building a culture of mateship, fairness, egalitarianism and freedom? Perhaps one reason is that there has been insufficient dialogue about rights between government and citizenry. Without human rights legally enshrined, it is easier to ignore them. Rights are thus disregarded, especially in conformity with racial intolerance. Professor Zifcak and Mr Fraser both discussed the desirability of open and frank dialogue about rights. Rights must be discussed in order to matter; in order that rights considerations always intrude on legislative and administrative action.
Elizabeth Evatt among others discussed a Human Rights Act as a check on executive power. Legislatively enacted human rights reaffirm the relationship between government and populace as one of service, protection and leadership. If governmental institutions do not live up to these ideals, they should be held accountable. Given the recently glaring inadequacies in our immigration institutions, and the frightening breadth of power given to ASIO by recent legislation, it would appear, as John Menadue outlined, that the Parliament is no longer doing its job as a defender of our ideals, values and rights. The draft Bill balances this task between courts, executive and parliament.
While our treatment of asylum seekers and Indigenous Australians illustrates the need for a Human Rights Act, a number of speakers also referred more generally to the fact that the common law does not offer adequate protection of human rights in this country. Malcolm Fraser and Professor Behrendt both made this point. Australia needs to enact human rights legislation, both in order to make basic protections available to the marginalised and disadvantaged in our society, as well as to live up to its international obligations.
Finally, a number of speakers including Susan Ryan noted that Australia is lagging behind other Western nations in its failure to enact a Human Rights Act. Australia, while priding itself on common values of fairness, freedom and diversity, does not uphold these values in law as other nations do.
As John Menadue noted in his closing address, there is still much work to do in the campaign for a Human Rights Act for Australia. The job will require capital of both the financial and intellectual variety.
New Matilda is now calling for comments on its draft Bill. Many issues, including the nature and number of rights which should attract protection, the necessary limitations to be placed on protection, and the role of the courts, are far from straightforward. What is certain is that the presence of the campaign itself, in the lecture halls, in the media and in online forums, generates a healthy debate about rights which this country needs.
The widest possible participation in this dialogue should be encouraged.
Download the draft Human Rights Bill
Download the Explanatory Memorandum to the Human Rights Bills.
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