Realising Rights in the Community

During the National Human Rights Consultation, I participated in a number of community forums, meeting with homeless people, elderly people, community workers and young people.  The purpose of these forums was to ensure that, instead of simply speaking for these people, we facilitated their direct engagement with the consultation.  What I also discovered was the extent to which these kinds of forums were a two-way street, as the participants offered insights and practical solutions to some long-standing problems. Based on what I heard and experienced in the community consultations, as Attorney-General I would immediately enact a National Charter of Human Rights that was a mixture of the Canadian and UK models.  It would become the framework within which my department would operate for the rest of my term.  Importantly, it would protect economic, social and cultural rights (as well as civil and political rights) on the basis that human rights are interrelated and indivisible.  Furthermore, providing Australians with formal ‘rights’, but not effective redress is pointless, so I would therefore include a free-standing right of action in the Charter as well as a provision enabling human rights advocacy groups to bring claims under the Charter.

I would also establish a large working group of people from all walks of life, including Aboriginal elders, old people, young people, homeless people, people with a disability, gays, lesbians, asylum-seekers as well as former judges, lawyers and politicians, to assist me in coming up with a broad campaign to maximise the effectiveness of human rights legislation in Australia.  If we are going to talk the talk about human rights, we have to walk the walk and ensure that human rights protections are not simply something for ‘legal experts’, but a tool that empowers the community, particularly disadvantaged members of the community, to have a voice in matters that concern their lives and their rights.  Involving people in decision-making processes and in the formation of public policy is itself a human right enshrined in art 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

I anticipate that one of the key issues that the working group would focus on would be a public education campaign to introduce the language of rights into our community.  My sense is that this would involve a range of strategies, including compulsory human rights education for all school children, education modules in community centres, offices and workplaces, and targeted training for judicial officers and government departments. I would, however, wait and see what the working group suggested and work with them to introduce their proposals.

There are a number of existing government policies and legislation that would not be compatible with a Charter and, rather than forcing individuals to fight these issues out in Court, I would insist that the government take immediate action to change these polices.  As a result, we would close down the detention centre on Christmas Island, amend the Northern Territory Intervention legislation so that both the Charter and the Racial Discrimination Act applied, remove the references to marriage being described as a union between a man and a woman in the Marriage Act, introduce six months’ paid maternity leave for all women, establish a Stolen Generations Reparations Tribunal, and initiate a review of counter-terrorism legislation.

I would also implement a number of significant changes to our legal system on the basis that, in too many cases, it does not adequately provide access to justice (let alone ensure justice) for many of the most disadvantaged members of our society.  Some of the key reforms I would make include changing court rules to make it easier for NGOs to intervene in cases to represent the public interest, as well as amending costs rules so that adverse costs would only be awarded in human rights cases against applicants if the claim was vexatious, frivolous or brought in bad faith.  I would also double the funding for community legal centres, Legal Aid Commissions and the Australian Human Rights Commission, given the vital role these bodies play in ensuring access to justice for individuals whose rights have been breached and in bringing human rights breaches to government’s attention.

I would also amend existing Federal anti-discrimination legislation so that it prohibited discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexuality, criminal record and religious belief.  Through the Industrial Relations Minister I would enact equal pay legislation akin to the UK Equal Pay Act, so that courts are able to award backpay to women who are able to show that they are doing the same or an equivalent job to men to ensure that they finally receive the same income.

Finally, I would be so impressed at the human rights working group, in particular their ability to come up with insightful and innovative solutions to difficult issues, that I would ask the members of the working groups to work with NGOs to establish a network of ongoing advocacy and advisory consumer groups throughout Australia.  These groups would meet regularly with all levels of government to provide them with consumer input and advice, which would become a mandatory requirement for all government policy.  There would also be agreement that such consultations should not simply be done through formal procedures such as submissions and parliamentary inquiries but also through focus groups, closer ties to NGOs and this new network of advocacy consumer groups.  Not only would this ensure that Australia realises the promise it made over 60 years ago – to protect, promote and fulfil human rights in Australia – but would also lead to a resurgence in democratic engagement, participation and decision-making.

Lizzie Simpson is a solicitor with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Sydney.