Climate change and a bill of rights have taken centre-stage in the OurSay People’s Question this week.

“Do our grandchildren not matter in respect of climate change?” asks David Pearn. “Is it ok to slag off atmospheric scientist as criminally cooking the books to feather their own nest? What happened to risk management …or are we simply a selfish, short-sighted generation?”

But Todd Hubers proposed a very different take. “Despite mounting evidence dispelling anthropogenic global warming, why does the Government still cling to old AGW supporting studies? The link between (any) global warming and health of the Great Barrier Reef, is strongly rejected by marine scientists, and at the very least, contested and unverifiable. There are many other examples. So why does the Government continue to deceitfully quote such disproven theories? Is the Government following science or simply cheery-picking science to suit their agenda (or committed-to policy).”

Matthew Herring took a different tack. “To Minister Combet, Why isn’t global poverty reduction and sustainable development explicitly part of our climate change policy? It’s my understanding that ultimately our growing world population is what drives our rising emissions, and that the average number of children per women plummets when people are pulled out of the poverty trap.”

Both parties claim to be committed to a minimum 5% reduction in CO2-equivalent emissions from 2000 levels by 2020, although the government claims that Coalition’s Direct Action policy, at its proposed level of funding, will see a rise in emissions, and would need a massive increase in funding to achieve its goals.

The government’s carbon pricing package, agreed with the Greens and independents, also relies heavily on direct action measures and also on Australian companies buying offshore emissions abatement. As Crikey reported in 2009, the Rudd government stopped efforts by Australia’s small Pacific neighbours to call for more ambitious emission reduction targets.

Many contributions unsurprisingly miss the subtleties of Parliamentary standing orders. Backbenchers can’t be asked questions unless they’re a chair of a committee and the question relates to their responsibilities, which rules out questions to Craig Thomson. Nor can questions be directed to “all MPs”, and federal ministers don’t have responsibility for state matters like the outrage over South Australian lawyer Eugene McGee.

There were also a number of human rights-related questions. “Why doesn’t Australia have a human rights act?” asked Sue Gilbert. Todd Hubers again had an alternate take. “The Bill of Rights implementation at the state level is hurting free speech and is simply a free ride for those claiming discrimination in marginal groups. Its ambiguity leaves interpretation up to judges alone. What is the Governments and Oppositions view on a Bill of Rights, and can either rule it out indefinitely.”

“While PM, John W Howard supported Iraqis having their own Bill Of Rights. Why on earth won’t Canberra look to do the same here at home for we Australians?” wrote Rod Freeman.

Labor revised the Commonwealth’s human rights framework in April 2010, after a review and consultation process headed by Frank Brennan, that stopped well short of a human rights act, despite what McClelland admitted was strong support in the consultation phase. Instead, the government establishing a framework in which Commonwealth legislation would be assessed against human rights principles by a parliamentary committee. That committee is scheduled to commence in the current sittings of parliament and bills are now carrying human rights impact statements.

The bill of rights debate has been hotly contested in the pages of Crikey for years now. The logic of a bill or charter of rights is to re-balance power between the judiciary and government to enable the former to better protect the rights of individuals from the latter. But the fundamental problem is the lack of accountability for judges. The question is whether we prefer that politicians make the fundamental decisions about human rights rather than appointed officials. As I wrote in December 2008,

Evidence that a bill of rights can protect human rights is mixed at best. As conservatives never tire of pointing out, the Soviet Union had an extensive bill of rights. The British Human Rights Act has done nothing to stop the Blair and Brown Governments from enacting draconian anti-terrorism legislation that systematically breaches basic legal rights, in a similar manner to that introduced by the Howard Government and retained by the Rudd Government here. The US Bill of Rights did not prevent the Bush Administration’s abuse of US citizens’ rights in the USA Patriot Act, or for that matter, the excesses of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act under the Clinton Administration. It certainly hasn’t prevented the systematic, frequent and egregious abuse of the rights of non-citizens since 2001.

Perhaps the best way to protect rights is to prevent laws that breach them in the first place. A genuine parliamentary review process that scrutinises legislation for its impact on basic rights, both before and after passage, would be both a more democratically accountable and effective mechanism for protecting rights, and identifying where laws might breach those rights, than empowering judges and lawyers to head off on shopping expeditions of their own to try to find breaches of human rights.

And then of course there was First Dog on the Moon’s take on the subject — why are we the only Western nation without a bill of rights? Because we can’t be bothered.

Nominations and voting for the most popular People’s Questions close on March 4.

*Crikey and OurSay are giving you the opportunity to get your question asked in the House of Representatives. Each week Crikey will feature a new reader question, and will look into the where/how and why of the issue and the politics behind it. A mystery member of parliament has agreed to take part in this OurSay initiative and take the People’s Question to Question Time in March. Start hitting OurSay with questions here: @OurSayAust,  @OurSayPeoplesQ (#PeoplesQ #auspol) or on Facebook. Or go to thepeoplesquestion.oursay.org for more information.

Peter Fray

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