Australia’s National Human Rights Consultation Report – 2009

9 Oct

The Australian National Human Rights Consultation Report, under the auspices of the Attorney General office, has been released yesterday. 31 recommendations have been made including the enactment of a human rights act and in other policy areas such as ‘creating a human rights culture’.

Some of the policy recommendations on creating a human rights culture are :

… that education be the highest priority for improving and promoting human rights in Australia…

… that the Federal Government develop a national plan to implement a comprehensive framework, supported by specific programs, of education in human rights and responsibilities in schools, universities, the public sector and the community generally…

On human rights in policy and legislation:

… that the Federal Government immediately compile an interim list of rights for protection and promotion, regardless of whether a HumanRights Act is introduced. The list should include rights from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the following rights from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that were most often raised during the Consultation: the right to an adequate standard of living (including food, clothing and housing); the right to the highest attainable standard of health; and the right to education…

On indigenous rights:

… in partnership with Indigenous communities, the Federal Government develop and implement a framework for self-determination, outlining consultation protocols, roles and responsibilities (so that the communities have meaningful control over their affairs) and strategies for increasing Indigenous Australians’ participation in the institutions of democratic government…

On the enactment of a Human Rights Act:

… that the Federal Government operate on the assumption that, unless it has entered a formal reservation in relation to a particular right, any right listed in the following seven international human rights treaties should be protected and promoted:
•    the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
•    the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
•    the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
•    the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
•    the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment
•    the Convention on the Rights of the Child •    the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities…

The report has drawn ire from conservatives despite the consultation process which has received more than 35,000 submissions and was conducted over 65 community roundtables and public hearings across more than 50 urban, regional and remote locations.

Opponents of the report are disconcerted with the recommended human rights act. The Australian Christian Lobby has stated on its website that they are opposed to a bill/charter of rights because:

• It transfers law-making powers from democratically elected parliament to an unaccountable judiciary
• It delivers increased power to vested interest groups who have failed to win their case for change with voters
• It puts at risk important freedoms Christians take for granted by putting them on a level playing field with other “rights”
• It turns rights into a tool for conflict through rights assertion
• Supporters of a bill/charter of rights have not successfully demonstrated the need for a comprehensive legislative document enshrining human rights in Australian law
• It fails its stated objective of protecting the vulnerable in society

None of these concerns are however substantiated since the new act will not give too much power to the judiciary, nor allow vested interests to act improperly. In fact, the act does the reverse by ensuring that the government will not be able to pass laws that violate the main international human rights conventions (henceforth depriving interests groups and lobby groups any undue influence). Moreover, the claim that the judiciary will be unaccountable is baseless since only matters of dispute are referred to the High court.

The argument that supporters of the human rights act have not ‘successfully demonstrated the need for a comprehensive legislative document enshrining human rights in Australian law’ is again rather weak as other western democracies have similar legislations. Moreover, the comprehensive national consultation process involving the grassroots have shown that a significant proportion of Australians want their human rights protected.

The recommendations which range from education to legislation only serves to undermine the claim that it will fail to achieve its ‘stated objective of protecting the vulnerable in society’.

Perhaps the Lobby is afraid of having the act passed because it does not want its Christian status being eroded or as they put it (quite openly): ‘It puts at risk important freedoms Christians take for granted by putting them on a level playing field with other “rights”.

In a secular society like Australia, the Australian Christian Lobby should learn to live with other communities and cultures and not perceive itself as ‘above others’. The argument that their freedom is more important than the rights of the vulnerable goes to show how narrow-minded the lobby is.

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