Push for human rights to be enshrined in law receives widespread support

Posted on 04 Jun 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Human Rights

Civil society advocates have applauded a new report tabled in federal Parliament which recommends Australia introduce a national Human Rights Act.

Advocates said the recommendation, which would be part of a wider revitalised human rights framework, is a significant step which moves the nation closer to establishing basic legal protections for all Australians.

A coalition of 104 sector organisations ranging from the Human Rights Law Centre to the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) and Amnesty International Australia welcomed the call by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights to legislate a national Human Rights Act.

The inquiry was initiated in March 2023 by federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, in response to a position paper by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which outlined a model for a national Human Rights Act.

The Commission's president, Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher, welcomed the parliamentary report and urged the Albanese government to act on its recommendations.

“Human rights are not adequately protected at the national level,” she said.

Professor Croucher said whenever laws are made, their impact on people’s rights and wellbeing should be front of mind.

“We have before us a once-in-a generation opportunity to anchor the protection of basic rights in law. The time is right to strengthen Australia’s human rights framework.”

Chaired by Labor MP Josh Burns, the inquiry into Australia’s human rights framework received 335 public submissions, with more than 87% in favour of a Human Rights Act.

In addition to recommending a Human Rights Act, the 486-page report made 17 recommendations, including that:

  • the government should re-establish and significantly improve Australia’s Human Rights Framework
  • the framework should include a significant and ongoing commitment to national human rights education
  • public servants should be required to fully consider human rights in the development of legislation and policies
  • parliamentary scrutiny of human rights should be improved
  • the role of the Australian Human Rights Commission should be enhanced
  • Australia’s legislation, policies and practices for compliance with human rights should be reviewed
  • measures to monitor progress on human rights should be introduced.
“Everyone should be able to enjoy their human rights regardless of their postcode or bank balance.”
Human Rights Law Centre CEO Caitlin Reiger.

The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) was among the organisations that applauded the inquiry’s call for an Australian Human Rights Act, which it said would help create a fairer and more compassionate Australia.

The HRLC said Australia was the only Western liberal democracy in the world without a legislated Human Rights Act – something that would ensure governments considered people’s human rights when creating new laws and delivering a wide range of services from aged care to education.

HRLC CEO Caitlin Reiger said recent polling showed three out of four Australians support the introduction of a Human Rights Act.

“An Australian Human Rights Act will ensure that the values we share – fairness, respect, freedom and justice – are at the heart of all government decisions, laws and policies,” said Ms Reiger.

“Everyone should be able to enjoy their human rights regardless of their postcode or bank balance.”

Ms Reiger said that in Australia, every

Human Rights Resource Centre CEO Caitlin Reiger.

child should be able to have a great education, everyone should have access to quality health care, and all public services should respect people’s dignity and privacy.

“The Australian community and parliamentary inquiry have called for an Australian Human Rights Act. Now it is time for the Albanese government to act and create a fairer future for every person.”

Amnesty International Australia's national director, Sam Klintworth, said the inquiry's endorsement of a Human Rights Act recognised the failures of Australia’s current protections, which leave victims without recourse to address human rights abuses.

“Implementing a Human Rights Act will provide federal legal protections and empower people to challenge abuses,” he said.

ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie said the Robodebt scandal had highlighted how vulnerable Australians were to government abuse of power without adequate human rights protections in place, making it vital that economic and social rights were included in any Human Rights Act.

“We need a Human Rights Act that provides protections for people against human rights abuses and builds a culture of respect for basic rights for all.”

Committee chair Josh Burns said that with a Human Rights Act in place, Parliament would need to expressly consider human rights when making laws, and Commonwealth public authorities would need to consider rights when making decisions.

He said this model would enable complaints against public authorities to be conciliated by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

“One of the main benefits of a Human Rights Act will be to drive a human rights culture within the public service, so that those who serve us have a clear framework to consider and balance the rights and freedoms of everyday people when making decisions and developing laws and policies that affect us all,” said Mr Burns.

The release of the report coincides with a national conference this week hosted by the Australian Human Rights Commission to examine Australia’s human rights framework.

“Australia’s current human rights framework is outdated, ineffective and in desperate need of reform,” said Professor Croucher, who in addition to a Human Rights Act called for:

  • the strengthening of federal anti-discrimination laws
  • greater parliamentary oversight of human rights
  • more education for the community and policy makers about human rights.

“Policy failures like Robodebt and evidence from the Disability Royal Commission have focused community attention on the need for better human rights protections,” she said.

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