EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Human rights consultation hijacked?
, May 2, 2009
Some 70 organisations are busy flooding human rights hearings with submissions in favour of a national human rights act.Last December, the federal Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, launched a national human rights consultation, whose purpose was "to seek the views of the Australian community on how human rights and responsibilities should be protected in the future".
The Government appointed an independent panel of distinguished Australians, Fr Frank Brennan SJ, Mary Kostakidis, Mick Palmer and Tammy Williams, to conduct the consultation, and hearings have been held throughout the country over recent months.
The consultation is designed to obtain community views on three important issues:
• Which human rights and responsibilities should be protected and promoted?
• Are human rights sufficiently protected and promoted in Australia?
• How could Australia better protect and promote human rights?
However, the consultation process is being hijacked by the federal government-funded Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), which not only has its own agenda for the consultation, but is actively promoting the agenda of other organisations which favour its demand for a statutory human rights act for Australia.
This is a blatant misuse of public funds.Alternatives
In a democracy, it is important that there should be continuing debate about how to protect and enhance human rights, but a human rights act is just one of many different ways in which parliaments can protect such rights, and not necessarily the best way.
In Australia, many pieces of legislation have been introduced to protect people's rights. At both the state and federal level, racial discrimination acts, the sex discrimination acts, Aboriginal land rights acts, industrial laws, laws limiting police powers and the powers of credit agencies, and laws in relation to property, are just some of them.
Additionally, Australia is a signatory to many UN covenants, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which can be enforced under Australian law.
Underpinning human rights in Australia is the common law which is based on legal precedents going back centuries.
A statutory human rights act would override the common law and existing laws, to the extent that they conflict, and put lawyers and judges in a position where they would determine what rights Australians ought to have.
Other countries have bills of rights or human rights acts, but there is no reason to believe that they are particularly successful. The United States has a bill of rights entrenched in its constitution while it has one of the highest incarceration and execution rates in the world.
Britain and New Zealand have both legislated human rights acts in recent years. The British act has not prevented the deeds of terrorism seen in recent years nor did it protect the rights of police and bystanders at the recent G20 summit.
The New Zealand act has not resolved the racial conflicts between whites and the Maori people which have bedevilled relations since before the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Within Australia, both Victoria and the ACT have legislation entrenching a charter of rights. Yet in Victoria last year, when legislation was enacted overriding the freedom of conscience for medical practitioners, nurses and pharmacists who refuse to co-operate in abortions, the Victorian charter was utterly ineffective.
Nor have advocates of an Australian human rights act spoken out over the actions of the federal and most state governments to override the freedom of association of bikie-gang members, who will face criminal charges for their associations, not because of any crime committed.
However, the government-funded AHRC has already decided that it supports a new human rights act. Its website reveals that it is also actively assisting an umbrella body called the Australian Human Rights Group, which is vigorously campaigning for such legislation.
According to its website, the Australian Human Rights Group contains about 70 organisations which are flooding the consultation with submissions in favour of such an act, including submissions from some lawyers' organisations, indigenous rights groups, community legal centres and the like.
Each of these organisations is entitled to put forward its views. But the AHRC is acting wrongly in promoting just one view on this divisive question.
In light of the way in which the AHRC has effectively hijacked the consultation which is currently under way, will it come as any surprise if the panel finds overwhelming public support for some form of human rights act for Australia?
At that point, the issue will proceed to legislation which will be go to the federal Parliament, and particularly the Senate where the government does not have control in its own right.
The battle over the proposed human rights act will not conclude when the present consultation process ends in August 2009. It will, in fact, be just beginning.— Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.