A report in today’s AFR suggests that the federal government could be backing away from a recommendation from the National Human Rights Consultation Committee that Australia introduce a statutory bill of rights at the federal level.
Last September Father Frank Brennan presented to Attorney-General Robert McClelland the report from the national consultation on human rights protection. Reflecting the views of 40,000 individuals, plus judges, law bodies, social justice organisations, church people and overseas experts, reinforced by commissioned research from Colmar Brunton, Father Brennan recommended a human rights Act.
Research and polling show extensive support for this approach.
But the AFR reports that Attorney-General Robert McClelland has acknowledged that the proposal is “very controversial”, both within the Labor Party and throughout the community.
The rights under discussion are those long since ratified by Australian governments, especially in the UN Civil and Political Rights and the economic and cultural rights conventions. The homeless, the disabled, mentally ill, old people, indigenous or Muslims often encounter violations of these rights at the hands of the Commonwealth and its agents. A law as proposed would reduce such abuse by ensuring Parliament would consider rights when legislating. Public servants would have to understand and accept rights as they implement policy. All this would be achieved by an ordinary Act of parliament, with the courts getting only the power to find an action of the Commonwealth inconsistent with legislated rights.
This modest but important proposal should find no resistance from a reform government. Why are we still waiting for a response? Action here has virtually no electoral risks. Most people would applaud. Of course there is opposition. Can this be the obstacle?
Let’s consider. Protecting the vulnerable is core business for most Christian bodies, as demonstrated by the many supportive church submissions.
But the only organised opposition comes, oddly, from the Australian Christian Lobby. Its recent petition to Parliament reflected wildly erroneous claims that the law proposed by Father Brennan was really about facilitating same sex marriage and abortion. And forcing churches to hire homosexual teachers in their schools. Along with Bob Carr and Cardinal George Pell, the ACL also asserts that the proposed ordinary Act of Parliament would undermine our democracy and improperly inflate the powers of “unelected judges”.
The most cursory reading of the Brennan report wipes out these claims.
Evangelicals will continue to rail against gay marriage and abortion as they are entitled to do. Their attempted takeover of a serious initiative designed to protect the vulnerable is another matter. Well organised and resourced, they may not feel the need for legal protection of their rights. But others do. Australians appear to support this law. It fits naturally with a Labor government committed to inclusion and the homeless. In the absence of any serious negatives, we should be able to expect a decision, and a human rights Act from the government within this parliamentary term. But we are still waiting!!
Susan Ryan is chair of the Australian Human Rights Group