Parliamentary Joint Committee finds Stronger Futures legislation threatens human rights

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has expressed concern about whether the Stronger Futures package of legislation complies with Australia’s human rights obligations. The Stronger Futures legislation was introduced in 2012 and expanded and extended the operation of the Northern Territory Emergency response for a further period of 10 years. Particular measures, such as income management, were expanded beyond the Northern Territory into prescribed areas around the country.

The Committee raises two major concerns with the Stronger Futures policies. The first regards the lack of full involvement of affected communities, both in the formulation and implementation of policies. The right of self-determination under human rights treaties, especially when considered in the context of Indigenous Peoples, requires meaningful consultation and in many cases free, prior and informed consent of affected populations. The Committee recognises the Federal Government’s efforts in consulting local communities, but urges widespread and ongoing consultation and cooperation in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies.

The second major concern raised by the Committee related to the limitations on human rights imposed by some of the Stronger Futures measures. The Committee disputes the assertion that the measures restricting certain rights are not discriminatory because they constitute “special measures”. The Committee asserts that special measures, as understood under international law, should not have, as an objective or result, the restriction of rights. The Federal Government must therefore demonstrate that measures that restrict human rights are justifiable by means other than resorting to special measures. The Government bears the onus in proving that a limitation to a right pursues a legitimate objective, that there is a rational connection between the measure and the objective, and that the measure is proportionate.

The Stronger Futures legislation overwhelmingly affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the Committee reports that although the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is not enshrined in domestic law, it is an important and relevant instrument for the Committee’s work, providing guidance in interpreting the scope of the rights that fall within its mandate.

While the Committee supports the Government’s objectives to enhance the protection of certain fundamental rights through its policies, it warns that certain measures, namely the income management and school enrolment and attendance measures, represent strong incursions into family and private life. The report recommends that the Committee continue to oversee the implementation of measures to ensure they are effective and accepted by affected populations.

The Committee’s full report is available here.