The committee chaired by Father Frank Brennan has produced a report which, if implemented, could help Australia live up to its reputation of providing ‘a fair go for all’.
The report includes a comprehensive list of recommendations to help overcome shortcomings the committee has found in the protection of human rights in Australia. Importantly, it also recognises that the human rights act it recommends needs to be underpinned by an active parallel educational program which will foster the development of a rights-based culture across government, the legal sector, the bureaucracy and the community as a whole.
The report is in line with the views expressed by the overwhelming majority of participants in the consultation process and has generally been welcomed by civil libertarians.
However the very breadth of its recommendations (31 in all) may also represent its greatest potential weakness. It provides government with ample scope to introduce a range of second level recommendations while ducking the most essential one, namely Recommendation 18: the introduction of a Human Rights Act for Australia.
Meanwhile virtually all of the Coalition and some elements within the Labor party itself, remain implacably opposed, bound by an apparent inability to concede that present laws are demonstrably failing to protect those in the community least able to fend for themselves. In this they are actively supported (led?) by the News Limited cheer squad.
This opposition seems set to continue with populist negative campaigning, pointedly ignoring the substance of the Brennan report which contains a detailed analysis of key arguments for and against human rights reform in Australia.
Also conveniently ignored are the reviews of human rights legislation introduced over recent years in the UK, New Zealand, the ACT and Victoria. This legislation forms the basis of the Brennan recommendations and, unsurprisingly, no evidence was found that representative government in these jurisdictions had been undermined by an activist judiciary.
The federal Attorney-General has given no indication as to when the government will make a formal response. While many in cabinet are sympathetic to human rights reform, the government’s final position will inevitably reflect the personal views of the Prime Minister, who, to date, has scrupulously avoided taking any substantive public position on this issue.
Kevin Rudd has consistently called for more accountable government. Through his support of the reforms recommended by the Brennan Committee he can take a major step towards achieving this goal. Let us hope he grasps this opportunity to change his words into deeds.