In 2006, Victoria became the first Australian state to enact a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. This year, with the Charter under review, we have a stark choice. Will we further strengthen our fundamental rights and freedoms or become the first state in the modern democratic world to wind back or weaken them? At an estimated cost of just $13.5 million over five years, money spent on creating and rolling out Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights has already proven to be a wise investment. Upholding human rights has both human and economic benefits and, for around 50 cents per Victorian per year, the Charter has ensured the fundamental rights of Victorians from all walks of life are protected in law.
A lot of myths have developed about the Victorian Charter, with wild claims being thrown around – everything from it being “dangerous” to “undemocratic” to “weak”. So let’s look at the facts.
First, the Charter is primarily a preventative tool. When governments are drafting laws or providing services, they must be cross-checked against the Charter to make sure the human impacts are considered. If potential human rights problems can be weeded out during the early stages of law and policy development, then costly challenges and changes are less likely to be an issue further down the track.
Second, the Charter provides a way for Victoria’s courts to notify parliament and the broader public when existing laws breach human rights. This is an important safeguard against politicians deliberately or inadvertently neglecting our human rights. However, courts do not have the power to strike down laws. Parliament always has the final say.
Third, whilst the Charter is not a magic wand that has fixed every instance of unfairness in Victoria, it has clearly increased human rights protections for Victorians from all walks of life. For example, the Charter was used to prevent a group of young people with acquired brain injury from being moved to inappropriate aged care facilities. It was used to stop a pregnant mother of two from being evicted into homelessness. And it was used to secure vastly improved access to support services for children with autism.
The Charter is about protecting the rights of ordinary Victorians and sticking up for some of the most vulnerable in our community. In the scheme of Government spending, $13.5 million over four years is a drop in the ocean – less than what the government spends on graffiti prevention and clean up over the same period.
Victorians are right to expect that the values that we hold dear – fairness, equality, respect, to name a few – be enshrined in law. There is strong evidence that the protection of human rights in the law can contribute positively to the realisation of human rights on the ground.
The review is an opportunity to strengthen the Charter further by including social and economic rights, like the right to education and access to health care. These are the rights that arguably matter the most to Victorians. It’s hard to enjoy the right to privacy if you don’t have food on your plate or a roof over your head.
Contrary to some misleading claims, the Charter has had little impact on our criminal justice system. Rather the Charter has overwhelming been used to help people who are homeless, people with disability, people with mental illness and other marginalised groups. It has done all this cost effectively and with little fuss. With set up costs now accounted for, the running costs of the Charter are likely to decrease over time as service delivery becomes more efficient and more effective.
For less than the price of a cup of coffee each, the Charter has delivered improved human rights for all Victorians over the last five years. That’s a bargain.
Let’s hope the Baillieu Government doesn’t go down in history as the first in the developed, democratic world to weaken or repeal a Human Rights Charter. Instead it should do justice to all Victorians by making this ‘quiet achiever’ stronger.
Ben Schokman is the HRLC’s Director of International Human Rights Advocacy and is on secondment from DLA Piper.