Let’s call a spade a spade, and consider the debate over Australia’s Bill of Rights for what it really is: a political debate on how government power should be limited. So why not have a liberal, or “free market”, Bill of Rights that actually limits the power of government and protects rights that really affect us?

If we are going to have a Bill of Rights — and there are good arguments why we should not — it should contain provisions such as these:

  • No level of government should be able to acquire an individual’s property without compensation. This currently exists at federal level, but should be extended to state and local governments as well. Governments take property rights away from property owners all the time — not just in the obvious way depicted in The Castle, but by imposing limits on what individuals can do with their property, such as heritage restrictions and native vegetation laws. These regulations impose very real costs, and trample all over the rights of individuals.
  • Individuals must be consulted before governments pass laws that adversely affect them. A similar provision is enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Sounds too obvious? Perhaps, but the Australian government passes a lot of laws, and despite recent attempts to reform the law making process, few potential changes are widely consulted and subject to the sort of scrutiny by those they will affect.
  • Budgets must be balanced. Recognising that future generations have a right not to be burdened with the spending excesses of today, many US states have written into the constitution a requirement that budgets must be balanced.

There are many other possible inclusions. Any and every tax increase the government wants to burden us with must be approved by a referendum – again, common in many US states. Nevada’s constitution puts a limit on the amount of days per year their state legislature can sit — the less time politicians sit in parliament, the less time they have to make bad laws.

The ever growing number of countries instituting “flat” income tax rates recognises the responsibility for citizens to contribute equally to the upkeep of the state, and the right for individuals not to be disproportionately targeted for their money.

These recommendations are undoubtedly contentious — a Bill of Rights is fundamentally a political issue. Deep down, what goes into a Bill of Rights reflects the value judgements of those that draft it — to believe otherwise is naive.

Timothy Brown is a Researcher at the Institute of Public Affairs.

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