Building on Labor’s human rights record

With Australians heading to the polls this weekend, we asked the three people contending to be the next Commonwealth Attorney-General to outline their visions and priorities for human rights and justice in Australia. Here’s what Labor’s Mark Dreyfus had to say… (You can find Liberal Party's George Brandis' piece here and The Greens' Penny Wright's here.)

Mark Dreyfus: Building on Labor’s human rights record

We have just marked the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. One of Mr King’s eloquent observations about justice, though not from that wonderful speech before the Lincoln Memorial, was that “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."

Mr King clearly understood that justice and human rights must be fought for, and that what is won in that struggle must then be defended.  It is my view that this observation holds true for Australia, and that we cannot claim to be a great nation without a commitment to justice and human rights – not just in our rhetoric, but in our actions.

Our Labor Government has been working since 2007 to build a more just Australia, consistent with our values and reflecting evolving human rights standards. I am proud of the progress that we have made in the last six years in office, and since becoming Attorney-General in February this year I have been working to further this noble objective.

But there is still work more to do.

Access to justice is fundamental to community well-being, and requires that all Australians, regardless of means, have a fair go under the law. Despite a constrained fiscal environment, this year our federal Labor Government delivered a critical funding boost for legal aid commissions (7%), community legal centres (25%) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services (8%), as well as announcing new funding for self represented litigant services.

We also funded the establishment of knowmore, a free national legal advisory service to support people in relation to, and particularly those who are appearing before, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Restoring access to justice after the savage cuts of the Howard Government is a long haul task. We have made significant progress but there is still more to be done to achieve the promise of equal access to justice for all.  And I am determined to continue that work.

Despite initial opposition from the Coalition, for the first time we now have federal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. These are welcome and long-overdue reforms, but there is still more to be done to consolidate, modernise and strengthen our complex and at times overlapping discrimination laws.

Our Government has removed discrimination against same-sex couples from 85 Commonwealth laws. But there is still more to be done. Unlike the Liberal Party, Labor has committed to a conscience vote on marriage equality, another long-overdue change to our law that I strongly support.

Our Government has started a process of building community support for the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We have provided $10 million to Reconciliation Australia to raise awareness of this issue, and in February we passed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2013 as a step towards a successful referendum. But there is still much more to be done to achieve justice for Australia’s first peoples.

In particular, we need to address the shocking imprisonment rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. And I am enthusiastic about working with the states and territories to implement justice reinvestment processes that show significant promise in cutting crime, saving taxpayer funds and strengthening communities.

With respect to human rights, our Government launched Australia’s Human Rights Framework in 2010, which greatly enhanced Parliamentary scrutiny of human rights through the establishment of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. It also established Australia’s National Human Rights Action Plan and integrated the plan with our constructive engagement with human rights mechanisms through the United Nations. There is still more to be done to strengthen the protection of human rights, and the 2014 review of the Framework presents an important opportunity to consolidate and extend these gains.

On the international stage, Australia is playing a constructive role advancing global justice through our seat on the Security Council and we have announced Australia’s candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council in 2018.

Our record and our vision stand in stark contrast to those of the Liberal Party.

The Liberal’s spokesperson on legal affairs, Senator George Brandis, claims to champion free speech while supporting the gagging by conservative state governments of community legal centres and other organisations whose voices are integral to debates about improving our laws and policies.

The only pretence of a commitment to free speech from Mr Brandis is his stated plan to repeal the 1995 law against racial vilification – or ‘hate speech’. What that really means is stripping away people’s protection from racial abuse and persecution. Not only does this law already include extensive protections for freedom of speech and political communications, but it has been working well for twenty years, with the courts only utilising the provision in the most serious cases. One has to question what kind of society Mr Brandis wants Australia to become when he claims that racially motivated hate speech is necessary to ‘intellectual freedom’ in our nation.

Of course we must be free to talk about racism, culture and diversity in this country, but when Senator Brandis and Mr Abbott talk about free speech, it is not the interests of the victims of racial prejudice they have in their minds.

It is clear from their own statements – and conspicuous silences in the face of abuses by their conservative state counterparts – that if given the chance, the federal Coalition would reverse the progress our nation has made on justice and human rights since 2007, stripping back the Australian Human Rights Commission, retreating from our constructive engagement with international human rights mechanisms, and putting intense pressure on legal assistance funding through unwarranted and ideologically driven budget cuts. We must do all we can to stop this from happening.

Labor has a long history and a strong vision for justice and human rights in our nation. And we also have a clear plan of action. If I have the honour of continuing to serve the nation as Attorney-General in a re-elected Rudd Government, I will continue the work of making Australia a more just and egalitarian nation under the rule of law.