Human rights education and parliamentary engagement with human rights will be enhanced under a new ‘Human Rights Framework’ for Australia, announced by the Attorney-General on 21 April 2010 in response to the recommendations of the National Human Rights Consultation. However, the Rudd Government’s failure to commit to a comprehensive, national Human Rights Act — a key recommendation of the Consultation which was supported by over 87% of a record 35,000 public submissions — is a missed opportunity to strengthen Australia’s democracy and build a fairer, more inclusive community.
A Human Rights Act deferred is human rights denied. The Government’s deferral of a Human Rights Act until at least 2014 — when the new Human Rights Framework will be reviewed — is a denial of the many benefits which demonstrably accompany such an Act.
Evidence and experience from Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, both of which have their own Human Rights Acts, demonstrate that a national Act would promote more accountable government, improve public services, address poverty and disadvantage, and enshrine fundamental, unifying values. Instead, the homeless, the elderly, people with mental illness and children with disability — all of whom have been beneficiaries of human rights laws in Victoria and the ACT — must now wait at least another 4 years before their human rights are adequately protected and promoted at the national level.
The deferral of a Human Rights Act aside, there are a number of significant and valuable commitments contained in the new ‘Human Rights Framework’. These commitments include the establishment of a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, which will be mandated to review legislation and conduct inquiries on human rights issues, and the development of a range of scrutiny mechanisms to ensure that Australian laws and polices are compatible with human rights. These measures will improve the development of laws, policies and practices and play an important role in ensuring that human rights are properly considered in both legislative and executive decision-making processes.
The Government has also committed to invest much needed funds in human rights education – providing $2 million over four years to the community sector and $6.6 million over the same period to the Australian Human Rights Commission. This reflects the recommendation of the National Human Rights Consultation Committee that ‘human rights education be the highest priority’. The Government will also engage in more extensive consultation on both international and domestic human rights issues with civil society. These are important initiatives and should not be discounted. If properly implemented, they will assist in further developing a culture of respect for human dignity and human rights in Australia.
Critically, however, the effectiveness of such measures will be substantially reduced without a robust enabling framework in the form of a comprehensive, judicially enforceable Human Rights Act. Without such an Act, many vulnerable people are left without human rights remedies and Australians are forced to continue to look to international human rights standards rather than seek inspiration and redress from local human rights laws. As one homeless man said to me, ‘It is like icing without a cake’. Under the Rudd Government, he’ll have to wait at least another four years for that.
In announcing the Framework, the Attorney-General was correct in stating that the ‘enhancement of human rights should be done in a way that unites us’ rather than divides us. Far from being divisive, however, a Human Rights Act would unite us through legal protection and institutional strengthening of those Australian democratic values we hold in common. As demonstrated by the Apology to the Stolen Generations, political leadership and vision can unite people, even on controversial issues. That is particularly the case when what is proposed is good, evidence-based policy that resonates deeply with our Australian commitment to respect, tolerance, fairness, freedom and the rule of law.
For the next four years at least, Australians will need to continue to look to international human rights laws and UN institutions in New York and Geneva for many of the human rights protections that should be enshrined in law here at home.
The campaign for a Human Rights Act that befits, protects and unites us has only just begun.
Philip Lynch is Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre