We need a Charter of Rights to hold politicians to account

We need a Charter of Rights to hold politicians to account

Looking back on the last week of federal politics is like viewing the remains of a discarded battleground. A wreckage of the kinds of broken promises and political point-scoring that Australians are sick of.

The Morrison Government – in league with Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi – played games in the Senate to stall a bill which would have ensured refugee men, women and children held on Manus and Nauru received the medical care they need here in Australia.

Watching their political games, it's easy to forget that people's lives were on the line - children in desperate need of medical treatment are still stranded in offshore camps, fathers who haven’t seen their children for six long years are still separated by thousands of kilometres.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also broke his promise to protect students from being expelled because of their sexuality. Instead, he produced a bill which would have entrenched discrimination against students in religious schools.

LGBT students across Australia will be returning to schools next January which can turn them away because of who they are.

Then encryption legislation was rushed through parliament which gives government agencies unprecedented access to private messages and data, with very little oversight. The debate foreshadowed such serious encroachment on citizens’ privacy rights that tech giant Apple is considering withdrawing from the Australian market entirely.

When the bill comes into effect, every person who uses technology to communicate with their loved ones, and share information about their lives online will be affected. It will make your smartphone more vulnerable to cyberhacking, and leave open the door for systemic weaknesses in online security which could put Australians' data and privacy at risk.

When our elected representatives can so easily and quickly cook up such excessive laws and wave them through parliament with next to no scrutiny, it’s no wonder Australians are losing faith in our democratic processes.

These are symptoms of a broken system. A political system that has never had enough checks and balances and always just relied on the public taking a “she’ll be right” attitude. But unlike the frog in the slowly boiling water, we are starting to realise how dire our situation is.

We need an effective way of holding governments to account – I’m not talking about just at the ballot box every three or four years, I mean each and every time they overstep the line.

We need a way to make sure that human rights can’t be brushed aside when it’s politically advantageous to do so and that children’s lives are not used as political playthings.

Every other western democracy in the world has a Charter of Human Rights, or equivalent legal protection. It’s time for Australia to catch up.

They aren’t magic wands, but Charters of Rights provide ordinary people and communities a way to challenge the government for violating fundamental human rights. Protecting human rights in our laws will provide the circuit breaker for when governments do the wrong thing.

Protecting human rights is about ensuring that we can all see a doctor when we are sick, regardless of our bank balance. It’s about stopping people from being evicted into homelessness. Making sure all kids get a good education whether their parents are rich or poor, and stopping governments from unfairly intruding on our private lives.

Our lives are better when we all treat each other with compassion and respect. That’s why it’s so important the values that everyone holds dear – like fairness and equality – are properly protected in our laws.

A Charter of Rights is about putting the rights of people ahead of the interests of self-serving politicians. It’s about making sure they follow the rules they’ve signed up to.

It’s about making sure that in years to come, we’re not looking back in the same way we now look back on the shameful policies from our history: the White Australia Policy, the Stolen Generations, the Northern Territory Intervention.

Now is the time to say “enough is enough” to politics as usual. We need a game changer.

Our politicians have shown time and time again that they cannot always be trusted to put the interests of human beings before their own political survival.

It’s time to put power into the hands of the people. To give us the tools to hold our governments to account.

Yes, it’s time for an Australian Charter of Human Rights.

Lee Carnie is a Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre.