The Baillieu Government’s decision to retain and possibly strengthen the Victorian Charter of Human Rights is a victory for evidence-based policy, accountable government and a fair go for all Victorians. The Government today tabled a major statement on the future of the Charter following its review by a parliamentary committee last year.
Despite 95% of submissions to that committee calling for the Charter to be retained or strengthened, the committee recommended stripping courts and tribunals of the power to hold government to account or to provide people with remedies when their human rights are violated. If accepted, the recommendations would have rendered the Charter completely ineffective.
According to the statement, “the Government is strongly committed to the principles of human rights and considers that legislative protection for those rights provides a tangible benefit to the Victorian community”.
This is in line with the Premier’s statement late last year which recognised that the “Charter of Human Rights has delivered benefits to Victoria and should not be repealed”.
The Charter came into force in 2007 with strong community support but among some political opposition. Five years on, the evidence clearly shows that the Charter has substantial benefits, including greater government accountability, more responsive public services and more compassionate treatment for some of Victoria’s most vulnerable people.
Its protections have been particularly important for people with disability, people with mental illness, children and the homeless.
The evidence also demonstrates that opposition to the Charter has been largely unfounded. The Charter has maintained the sovereignty of parliament and there has been no ‘flood of litigation’.
Through its influence on Victorian law and public services, the Charter has provided additional support for children with autism, prevented the eviction of poor and vulnerable Victorians into homelessness, and strengthened legal protections and oversight for people with mental illness.
In the face of this overwhelming evidence of the Charter’s benefits, and the complete lack of evidence of its supposed ills, continued opposition would not have been anti-Charter, it would have been anti-human rights.
It is significant that the government statement on the future of the Charter recognises that “there is an ongoing place for the courts in protecting rights”. In light of recent decisions of the High Court and the Victorian Court of Appeal, the government is prudent in seeking further “evidence-based” legal advice on how courts and tribunals can best fulfil this role.
It is critical that this advice recognise the fundamentally democratic role that courts and tribunals play in ensuring that government bureaucracies respect and protect our human rights.
The ability to vindicate human rights in our independent courts and tribunals is essential for access to justice and the rule of law.
It is also pleasing that the government has pledged to consider the inclusion of additional rights in the Charter. This would bring it into line with international human rights standards.
For the time being at least, Victoria has avoided becoming the first state in the developed, democratic world to weaken or repeal a human rights act.
While the decision of the government to further consider the role of courts and the inclusion of additional rights is an opportunity to expand the Charter and its benefits, much work remains to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights for all Victorians.
Phil Lynch is Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre.
This article was first published on The Herald Sun's Law Blog.