Human rights: Australia has spoken

Frank Brennan

Mr Attorney, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the Kulin nation here in Melbourne and pay respects to all their descendants. I thank you Mr Attorney for having appointed me to chair the committee for the National Human Rights Consultation. It has been a rare privilege to gain such an in-depth overview of the thinking and commitments of our fellow Australians about human rights and responsibilities.

I thank my fellow committee members Mary Kostakidis, Tammy Williams, Mick Palmer and also Philip Flood who have come to know foibles that not even I knew I had. It has been a delight to share the public trust with them and to wrestle with the many questions we have had to consider while sifting the mounds of submissions and hearing the heartfelt pleas of our fellow citizens the length and breadth of this great land of ours.

Together we spent four months traversing this land, from Christmas Island to Palm Island, from Yirrkala to Devonport. Neither did we miss the Centre, attending community roundtables in Coober Pedy, Mintabie, Kalgoorlie, Charleville, Alice Springs and Santa Teresa. Thousands of concerned citizens came and spent time with us, sharing their views on how we might better protect human rights in Australia.

People with wildly divergent opinions about social, moral, political and legal questions came and had their say. Only once did a participant abuse the audience. The respect and tolerance we show each other in the public domain is one of the great things about Australia. I doubt there are many other countries where these community roundtables could have been conducted so peacefully.

Our three days of public hearings in the Great Hall of Parliament House in Canberra featured a diverse range of Australians agitating the big questions of this National Human Rights Consultation - including whether we need an Australian Human Rights Act. Never before has a public consultation generated so much interest: the Committee received more than 35,000 submissions.

We were attentive to those who sought us out - at a community roundtable, on the online forum, on Facebook, at the public hearings or through submissions. We also commissioned detailed research with focus groups, a national telephone survey, and devolved consultations with some of Australia's most vulnerable people.

Mary, Tammy, Mick, and I had obviously been chosen because we are Australians with very different backgrounds and perspectives. We started with our differences, and we still have some. The government entrusted us to feed back what we heard from the Australian community. This we have tried to do.

We came to the task confident that Australia is a nation that prides itself on 'the fair go' but knowing that much could be done to improve human rights - especially the human rights of people who 'fall between the cracks' in our egalitarian society.

We knew our task was politically charged because many citizens wanted to focus on the question of whether we should have a federal Human Rights Act. The Coalition parties were opposed. The Labor Party was divided. The majority of those attending community roundtables favoured a Human Rights Act, and 87.4 per cent of those who presented submissions to the Committee and expressed a view on the question supported such an Act: 29,153 out of 33,356. In the national telephone survey of 1200 people, 57 per cent expressed support for a Human Rights Act, 30 per cent were neutral, and only 14 per cent were opposed.

There was disagreement among members of the Committee about the need for and usefulness and desirability of a Human Rights Act. But, on the weight of all the views expressed, the Committee, persuaded of the need for such an Act, has recommended one which applies only to the Commonwealth and not to the States and Territories. Victoria and the ACT already have such measures in place.

But this report is about much more than the debate about a Human Rights Act. More than half the recommendations relate to other matters. The clearest finding from our work is that Australians know little about their human rights - what they are, where they come from and how they are protected. They need and want education. They need and want to create a better culture of human rights in those organisations that deliver public services to the community.

We hope that this detailed report (available here and here), the consultation website, the commissioned research, the thousands of submissions received and published and the online forum will be useful educational resources for years to come.

Many Australians would like to see our national government and parliament take more notice of human rights as they draft laws and make policies. Ultimately, it is for our elected politicians to decide whether they will voluntarily restrict their powers or impose criteria for law making so as to guarantee fairness for all Australians, including those with the least power and the greatest need.

Our elected leaders could adopt many of the recommendations in this report without deciding to grant judges any additional power to scrutinise the actions of public servants or to interpret laws in a manner consistent with human rights. Alternatively, they could decide to take the extra step, engaging the courts as a guarantee that our politicians and the public service will be kept accountable in respecting, protecting and promoting the human rights of all Australians.

If they do choose to take that extra step, we have set out the way we think this can best be done - faithful to what we heard, respectful of the sovereignty of parliament, and true to the Australian ideals of dignity and a fair go for all. Our suggestions are confined to the Federal Government and the Federal Parliament. The states and territories will continue to make their own decisions about these matters. But we hope they will follow any good new leads given by the Federal Government and the Federal Parliament.

The Committee was privileged to make this journey. Along the way, we were joined by many dedicated helpers, a hard-working Secretariat, and a wonderful team of writers. The Committee, of course, accepts responsibility for any shortcomings in our procedures or findings.

Even if all our recommendations were implemented tomorrow, there would still be vulnerable Australians missing out, especially on the essential economic and social rights of greatest concern to the community: health, housing and education. Responsibility for meeting these needs cannot rest solely with government and the vulnerable themselves. We need to take responsibility for each other.

A free and confident Australia has always been on the path to better human rights protection. At times our leaders - such as H. V. Evatt and Jessie Street - have taken great strides on this path, showing the world a way forward. The Australian community's fabulous response to this Consultation suggests that the time is right for our elected leaders to take new steps to protect and promote human rights. Each step for human rights can take us further on the path to dignity and fairness.

The committee hopes this report is a real stimulus to enhanced human rights protection in Australia today. We are delighted that the Government has decided to publish it so promptly and to respond in detail at a later date. Respecting the sovereignty of Parliament and discharging the public trust given us, we the committee have entrusted this report to the Government and we now commend it to all our elected representatives in the Parliament. Let the next stage of the conversation and national commitment to human rights begin.


Frank Brennan SJ AO is a professor of law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University, and Chair of the National Human Rights Consultation. This is the text from the speech presented at the release of the Report by the Committee of the National Human Rights Consultation at Parliament House, Melbourne on 8 October 2009.


About:

The Australian Attorney-General announced the national consultation process on the protection and promotion of human rights in presenting the Annual Evatt Lecture in 2008. Among other activities, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 2008, the Foundation published Moving in the Open Daylight: Doc Evatt, an Australian at the United Nations, by Ashley Hogan (with a foreword by Michael Kirby, in association with Sydney University Press).

Suggested citation
Brennan, Frank, 'Human rights: Australia has spoken', Evatt Journal, Vol. 9, No. 4, November 2009.<http://evatt.org.au/news/human-rights-australia-has-spoken.html>