Human Rights under Labor

As part of the fresh approach that Labor will be taking to the next election, we have engaged in a substantial rewrite of our National Platform. The most obvious improvement in this sense is our new position regarding a Bill or Charter of Rights.

In government, Labor will hold a full public inquiry into how best to protect the civil and political rights and freedoms of Australians.  This represents a significant departure from the unfortunate ‘Charter of Citizenship and Aspirations’ that featured in the 2004 platform.

It is our view that this is an important question for the Australian people themselves – and ownership of the process must reside with them – rather than being determined by just one political party.  To move forward on the recognition of fundamental human rights, we must therefore reach beyond party politics for a process that will be embraced by all Australians.

Some will be critical that this approach is not ideal.  To them I point out that Labor has twice already pushed for constitutional amendment to secure important human rights (in 1944 and 1988) and on both occasions these were rejected.  In my view, we Australians are a naturally cautious people, who like to be fully informed and comfortable about a decision before throwing in our lot.  In 1988, this was not achieved.  The broader human rights movement manifestly failed to make its case to the Australian people, and this resulted in the referendum securing the lowest level of support since federation.  The lesson to learn from this experience is that we must move with greater caution in the future.  This will, in the longer term, yield a far better solution and hopefully greater success.

So in government, Federal Labor will engage the Australian people in a dialogue about what they think on this issue - what rights require protection and how that should be achieved.

Labor will be moving to end discrimination in federal law against gays and lesbians.  This will necessarily involve legislative change to a raft of federal laws covering tax, superannuation, social welfare payments and benefits and worker’s compensation amongst other areas.  However, this move does not extend to any changes that might alter the meaning of marriage under Australian law.

In addition, and following on from the good work of Tasmania and Victoria, Federal Labor will be pushing for nationally consistent relationship recognition schemes that will allow the registration of de facto heterosexual, same sex couples and certain carer relationships.  The effect of these changes will be that homosexual couples have exactly the same rights under law as heterosexual couples.

In indigenous policy, ‘Sorry’ is good but it is no longer good enough – in this 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum it is clear we have more to do to address the current situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  Jenny Macklin, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, has been working hard to advance policy in her portfolio that will help overcome years of neglect under the Howard Government.  But there is also work to be done in the Attorney-General’s portfolio.

Wholesale reform of the process of adjudicating Native Title claims is clearly essential to break the log jam and free both industry and claimants from the endless red tape.  The chronic under-resourcing of Native Title Representative Bodies has become a major issue in the eyes of all involved, except of course for the increasingly out of touch Howard Government which refuses to fix the situation.

Fundamental to the fresh approach of a Rudd Labor Government would be the separation of the role of the nation’s first law officer from that of first security officer.  Under the Howard Government, human rights issues are not treated with the gravity they deserve.  This is despite the rights and freedoms of Australian citizens having never been more important than in an age when the threat of terror stalks our shores.  Let me dispel the myth that our rights are just something for do-gooders and bleeding-hearts to feel good about.  Adequate human rights protections provide guidance to law enforcement agencies and help ensure that they are clearly focussed on targeting genuine terrorist threats.  Security without human rights is not real security at all – something proven time and time again to be a recipe for political unrest and attacks on democracy.  Security without human rights means Abu Ghraib, or Guantanamo Bay.  Yet the Howard Government’s model of governance is one that does not allow for the full consideration of both.  The merging of both the security and human rights Ministerial functions, leaves the Attorney-General hopelessly conflicted.  Every time Phillip Ruddock prepares a security brief, he is forced to make a decision about what position he will take to Cabinet.  The inevitable flaw in this model is that either the human rights component or the security component is edited out before the argument even reaches the Cabinet table.  That’s why Labor-in-Government has proposed to split the security and oversight functions between a Department of Homeland Security and the Attorney-General’s Department.  In this way, both streams of advice would get a proper hearing at the cabinet table.  It is essential for good government, but Philip Ruddock remains vehemently opposed.  Mr Ruddock simply doesn’t understand the value in separating policy streams and ensuring adequate transparency and oversight.  We only need look at his time as Minister for Immigration to see just how dangerous this can be, when that department became infected with a culture of concealment and cavalier attitude to human rights from the top down.

After 11 long years in power the Howard Government has clearly run out of puff.  At the same time, Federal Labor has never been as ready or keen to step up to the plate and confront head on these and the many other challenges of the future.

Senator Joe Ludwig is the Federal Shadow Attorney-General