With Canberrans heading to the polls this Saturday, attention is turning to whether election pledges — such as the right to housing — should be enshrined in the ACT’s pioneering Human Rights Act.

As the minority Labor-Green government prepares to face the voters, policy announcements on the campaign trail have focussed on education, health and housing. But in the main, these issues are not written into the ACT Human Rights Act — the first legislation of its kind in Australia. So why the snail’s pace of reform? Is the government letting down the people — and their human rights?

Initially, the Human Rights Act only protected civil and political rights including the right to life, freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial. The Labor government went on to enshrine the right to education in the ACT Human Rights Act 2004This time around, Labor has promised to acknowledge the right to housing if re-elected.

The addition of economic, social and cultural rights, including education and housing, was recommended by a joint ANU and ACT government research project. Its 2010 report assessed whether the act should be amended to include these rights.

Chief investigator, ANU professor Hilary Charlesworth, said the ACT Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Research Project Report 2010 recommended the act be amended to include human rights aligning with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It recommended the individual rights to housing, health, education, work and the right to take part in cultural life be acknowledged.

Charlesworth welcomed the government’s recent protection of the right to education, but said it wasn’t executed in the terms that were recommended. “The government has implemented it against our recommendation, without an individual right of action,” she said. This means Canberrans cannot argue in court their right to education has been breached.

“But it does require that the government review all the proposed legislation and policies to ensure that they are consistent with the right to education,” Charlesworth said. In this way, she said the greatest value of the recognition of the right to education is as a lobbying tool for parents and the community.

The ACT Human Rights and Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Helen Watchirs, welcomed the introduction but expressed hope for greater obligations of public authorities in the future. “The amendment to include a limited right to education is a modest but important step,” she said. “I hope that eventually the act will recognise the fundamental human rights to housing, health and a broad right to education, and that these rights will impose obligations on public authorities to comply with them in the same way as civil and political rights currently protected in act.”

The ACT Greens supported all of the report’s recommendations. Greens MLA Amanda Bresnan said the 2010 review of the Human Rights Act was a missed opportunity for the government: “I think it was an opportunity with the review to actually put the [economic, social and political rights] in. We would hope that in the next Assembly, whoever is there that they actually institute all of those rights into the act.”

But as the first legislation of its kind in Australia, ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher said the cautionary pace was necessary: “Because we are not learning from anyone else there isn’t anywhere we can go and say, ‘how has this worked for you?'”

Charlesworth said she accepted the pressures that have made decisive action by the government difficult: “The government’s view is that we have to be cautious in including these rights in legislation.”

The gradual inclusion was mainly due to the need to educate the community and public service of the changes and avoid people lobbying against them, she said: “But I do wish the government had been a bit more decisive and a bit bolder in what they have done.”

*More coverage of the ACT election at Crikey‘s Next ACT blog, produced by University of Canberra journalism students