Australians want better human rights protection. That’s the core message of the Brennan Committee’s report to the Rudd government on human rights.

Frank Brennan himself, in a speech delivered today, graphically illustrated just how out of touch are those in our community who oppose a human rights law. “The majority of those attending community roundtables favoured a Human Rights Act, and 87.4 per cent of those who presented submissions to the Committee and expressed a view on the question supported such an Act: 29,153 out of 33,356. In the national telephone survey of 1200 people, 57 per cent expressed support for a Human Rights Act, 30 per cent were neutral, and only 14 per cent were opposed,” Brennan says of the results of his Committee’s consultation process.

A federal human rights law would be similar to that which already exists in Victoria, the Brennan Committee argues. In other words, the courts would not be able to veto a law passed by the Commonwealth parliament, but could declare it to be incompatible with the human rights law.

That a human rights act is desperately needed at the Commonwealth level in Australia is made obvious by the Committee in its survey of the existing patchwork of laws and rights of appeal which are currently available to people wronged by government action:

Australia has a patchwork quilt of protection for human rights. We have made commitments to a range of obligations under international human rights law, but these obligations are enforceable in Australia only if implemented in domestic legislation.

Although there are numerous mechanisms for holding Australia accountable at the international level, they are not legally binding and their recommendations can be, and have been, ignored by Australian governments. We also have strong democratic institutions, but they do not always ensure that human rights — and in particular minority rights — receive sufficient consideration.

No wonder then that thousands of Australians each year find themselves unable to challenge decisions made by organizations like Centrelink, the Department of Immigration, and the AFP and security agencies to name some of the most prominent infringers of human rights.

The Victorian Human Rights Act is an overwhelming success and the Rudd government should examine it closely. Far from the sky falling in, as the conservative critics of the Bracks/Brumby government predicted, the Act has actually made life better for many vulnerable Victorians. It has made bureaucracy more accountable. Young people and their families are getting better access to services by being able to assert their enforceable rights, carers are better able to deal with local government when it comes to modifying their home for elderly parents, and people with mental illness now have a greater capacity to ensure they have a greater say over their treatment. Of course it’s not a paradise in Victoria but if you live there and are vulnerable you have greater rights than your counterpart in any other state except the ACT.

The response from federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland this morning is non-committal although he thinks it’s a good report. The ball is now in his and Mr. Rudd’s court. But if they reject a national human rights law because they are scared off by conservatives, they will be denying the Australian people the chance to be treated with greater respect by their government.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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