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Opinion: Community views on Charter of Rights sought

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Cite as: (2008) 82(12) LIJ, p.28

Following moves among the states and territories to give human rights charters in Australia legislative status, the debate over the need for a federal Charter of Human Rights is set to go national.

Victoria was the first Australian state to enact formal protection of human rights by introducing the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic). The Charter was enacted in July 2006.

The ACT’s Charter of Human Rights was passed by the ACT government on 2 March 2004.

The LIV supports the development of a federal human rights instrument and is looking forward to comprehensive public consultation on the issue.

Twelve months of action following 12 years of inaction: that’s the Rudd government’s commitment to human rights compared to that of the former government.

We have promptly delivered a long overdue national apology to Indigenous Australians, taken steps to remove discrimination in federal laws against same-sex couples, ratified the UN Disabilities Convention and are taking action on a number of Optional Protocols, including the Convention Against Torture, the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Disabilities Convention.

We have also issued a standing invitation to UN Special Procedures, which will allow international rapporteurs from significant international human rights bodies to visit Australia, and we have introduced a more humane system for the treatment of refugees and those seeking asylum. These are just a few of our initiatives, aimed at redressing the treatment of those in our community who suffer particular discrimination or disadvantage. This government takes human rights seriously.

Human rights recognise the inherent value and dignity of all people. They set out minimum standards for the rights of individuals in their relationship with government and with each other. Respecting human rights, and corresponding responsibilities, is the basis for peace and security, and underpins the values and freedoms that are part of our way of life.

Australia was at the forefront of the human rights movement when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on 10 December 1948. Not only were we among the first countries to adopt the Declaration, we also played an important role in its drafting and negotiation. An Australian, Dr HV Evatt, was president of the General Assembly when the historic vote was taken.

The Rudd government has made clear its intention to engage with all Australians to determine how best to recognise and protect human rights and responsibilities into the future.

In our view, the extent to which human rights and responsibilities are to be recognised is a question of national importance. The manner in which human rights are to be protected is a question that can only be answered by the Australian people.

As a government, we will initiate a public consultation about how best to recognise and protect the human rights, and corresponding responsibilities, of Australians. The consultation will ensure that all Australians are given the chance to have their say. Our aim is to obtain the views of Australians about which human rights and responsibilities should be protected in this country and how best to do that.

The consultation will also present an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of our current human rights framework and to explore ways in which human rights and responsibilities can be better promoted and protected. I expect a wide range of issues to be raised during the consultation.

While for many this will be an opportunity to discuss whether or not Australia should adopt a Charter of Rights, I expect other options will also be explored. Parts of the community will argue that the status quo is appropriate and sound. Others will undoubtedly advocate for change.

Importantly, the consultation will not presuppose any outcome, except to the extent that, as the government has previously stated, any proposal for change must preserve the sovereignty of Parliament and not involve a constitutional Bill of Rights such as the US has.

Ultimately, we want to seek the views of all parts of the community and to encourage broad-based discussion on the issue.

This will provide a basis for the government to consider the community’s views and to implement any changes sought by Australians.

ROBERT MCCLELLAND is the federal Attorney-General.

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