An Action Plan for Equality

If I were Attorney General I would try and make human rights a reality for all Australians. I would start by doing all I could to mainstream gender across all areas of government.

Being committed to self-determination and the active participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in decision-making that affects their lives and rights, I would seek out opportunities to engage widely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, listen to concerns raised and solutions proposed, and provide opportunities for communities to be involved in those solutions.

Having developed the National Action Plan on Human Rights with significant and ongoing input from civil society and state and territory governments, I would strongly encourage my ministerial colleagues to actively raise awareness about this Plan within their departments and discuss concrete ways of how this Plan would be integrated across all areas of government.  I want this Plan to be a living, breathing document.

Implement Universal Periodic Review Recommendations

I would also be very busy consulting with different government departments about how to implement the 145 recommendations made by 53 countries atAustralia’s recent appearance before the United Nations Human Rights Council under the Universal Periodic Review (‘UPR’).  These recommendations include: introducing a Human Rights Act; ending mandatory immigration detention; providing a constitutional right of equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; strengthening discrimination laws; ensuring independent investigation of police use of force; implementing and adequately funding the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children with an independent monitoring mechanism to ensure accountability; prohibiting non-therapeutic sterilisation of women and girls with disabilities; and developing a comprehensive poverty reduction and social inclusion strategy.

Having been applauded for my government’s collaborative and consultative approach with civil society throughout the UPR process, I would be proactively seeking ways to continue to facilitate this best practice.  I would meet immediately with representatives from civil society to discuss the process for responding to the Human Rights Council in June 2011.  To ensure transparency and accountability, important features of good governance, I would publicly commit now to providing detailed reasons for accepting, partially accepting or rejecting any recommendations.  I would also commit to a timeframe for implementation of these recommendations.

Consolidation of Anti-Discrimination Legislation

The right to equality and non-discrimination is a basic human right and yet there are significant gaps in its protection inAustralia. This was noted by several countries atAustralia’s recent UPR appearance.

As Attorney General I would listen to the collective experiences of the NGO Coalition and take active steps to ensure comprehensive equality legislation is introduced into parliament that:

  • enhances and strengthens protections;
  • addresses all prohibited grounds of discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, religion, socio-economic status, irrelevant criminal record and status of being a victim of domestic violence;
  • promotes substantive equality;
  • removes permanent exemptions; and
  • provides effective remedies against systemic and intersectional discrimination.

I would also do more to acknowledge the significant power and resources imbalance in favour of respondents in discrimination complaints and the public interest in seeking to redress discrimination.  I would increase funding to Community Legal Centres and Legal Aid to facilitate legal advice and representation for complainants.  I would introduce legislation that provides standing for effective representative complaints.  Noting that conciliation is not appropriate in all circumstances, particularly in circumstances of violence, for example, sexual harassment matters, I would legislate to provide that a complainant can take their matter directly to court.  I would also introduce a no costs jurisdiction so that costs are no longer a barrier to achieving justice.

Additionally, I would commit to implementing all the outstanding recommendations made in the 2008 review of the Sex Discrimination Act.

End Violence against Women and Children

Almost 1 in 3 women experience physical violence and almost 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

As Attorney-General I would be proud of my team’s efforts, alongside Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, in endorsing the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children.  This, however, is not enough.  To highlight my strong commitment in this area I would heed the recommendations made atAustralia’s recent UPR appearance, the 2010 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Concluding Comments and calls from civil society and I would adequately fund the implementation of this important Plan.  Additionally, I would adequately fund civil society to independently monitor this Plan so as to ensure accountability.  I would also be working towards a plan that rather than reducing violence, seeks to eliminate violence against women and children.

Better Protections for Women and Children in Family Law

As Attorney General I would be pleased that my government listened to the findings of the four evidence-based reviews about family violence and has taken the first important steps in strengthening protections for women and children in Family Law.  However, more needs to be done.

I would acknowledge there needs to be greater recognition that every family is unique.  The Family Law system needs to reflect this by having no presumptions.  Equal Shared Parental Responsibility provisions should also be removed.  Children’s safety must always come first.

This is only the beginning of what I would hope to achieve while my team and I are in office. I’d look forward to the challenges ahead.

Liz Snell was a member of the NGO Coalition delegation in Geneva for Australia’s recent UPR appearance and until recently worked for Women’s Legal Services NSW.