Human rights and democracy

The election of a government promising fairness and dignity for all provides the best opportunity in a long time for the reinvigoration of our democracy. At the heart of this endeavour is the recognition, codification and protection of human rights.

Over the last period of conservative government, Australia’s democracy has drifted off course, partly due to our failure to make the transition from the traditional but no longer adequate common law approach to rights, to a new model better suited to the times. In a world where waves of refugees and asylum seekers continue to flee wars and devastation, and where the weak, the indigenous, the mentally ill, and Islamic and other ethnic minorities are subjected to harsh and inhumane laws and policies, we need effective statutory protections.

Australia has not yet followed the example of the rest of the democratic world; it has not carefully reviewed how human rights fare in contemporary Australian society, and has not as yet used the legislative power of parliament to enact the modern human rights protections that should form part of a fair and egalitarian democracy.

The ACT and Victorian governments have accepted this responsibility, with other states set to follow, but at national level, we have a vacuum.

It was in answer to this growing need, and the passivity of political leadership in the face of much human suffering in our country, that a citizens’ campaign for a Human Rights Act for Australia, known as the New Matilda campaign, sprang into life.

It started just two years ago. Readers and contributors to New Matilda magazine challenged policies that kept sick children and frightened asylum seekers imprisoned behind barbed wire, and put mentally ill Australians in jail, or illegally deported them. The absence of basic services for our indigenous communities accumulated massive damage.

Anti-terror measures undermined traditional rights but were legislated without the checks and balances required by democracy.

How could a government pursue these destructive policies in the face of Australia’s long standing ratification of international human rights instruments, including the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural rights?

The answer was stark: without a national law embodying these commitments, they had no force here.

A small volunteer committee was formed. We embarked on a citizens’ campaign to achieve this national law. Using the best expertise in Australia and internationally, committee member Professor Spencer Zifcak coordinated the drafting of a model Human Rights Bill, which would put into Australia law our major existing international rights obligations.

We carefully drafted the bill to preserve absolutely the power of parliament to make and change all laws, giving the courts an interpretive function.

This draft bill has now been discussed and debated all over Australia. It was “launched” in all capital cities, many regional towns and suburbs. All manner of citizens joined the discussion: high profile former leaders like Malcolm Fraser, and distinguished former judges Sir Anthony Mason, and the President of HREOC, John Von Doussa made the case for legislating to protect rights. We met with dozens of ordinary citizens, with community groups: ethnic, church based civil liberties and union bodies. We found willing partner organisations in each state and territory, and unsolicited by us, both Geoffrey Robertson QC and Judge Michael Kirby have publicly and eloquently argued the case for an Australian human rights law.

Our citizens’ campaign has put human rights protection on the national agenda. To that extent we are close to achieving our objective. While we have been encouraged by MP’s from all parties, we take heart from our knowledge that in the newly elected Rudd Labor government are many who understand and accept that the time has come for action on human rights protections.

Now that citizens have elected this new government with overwhelming enthusiasm on the promise of a fairer Australia, we will continue and reinforce our campaign. Labor in opposition promised as a first step a national community consultation on human rights.

As citizens, we cannot make laws. We can however make the new government and indeed the entire parliament understand that Australians want and need a new law. If enough of us get involved we can confidently expect a government committed to fairness to heed the people and to act.

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