Yesterday the Government’s Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee delivered its report to the Victorian Parliament. The Report contains two conflicting recommendations, divided along political lines. The majority report recommendation is that only one of the three existing Charter functions be retained. This would effectively remove the Charter’s influence in the courts as well as its oversight of government services. The minority report recommends retaining and strengthening the current scope of the Charter. Submissions and transcripts from hearings made to the committee are available here.
The next stage in the process is for the Government to respond within 6 months. The Premier’s Department issued a statement that noted the benefits of the Charter and that the SAR Committee report was not to be identified with the Government’s response. The source and nature of this statement suggests that there are different views on the Charter within Government.
Despite the lengthy report by the SARC it remains unclear how the Charter’s effectiveness in protecting the vulnerable can or would be replaced by alternatives. A submission to the review by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) is particularly interesting in this respect. PIAC is very familiar with community advocacy. Its submission compares (real life) case studies between NSW (no Charter) and Victoria.
In Victoria a woman who was sole carer for her elderly parents received a notice from the local council that accommodation she had arranged for them was contrary to planning approvals. The woman’s parents were very unwell, one having recently had a stroke, the other with dementia. The woman’s representative wrote to the council asking that it consider the Charter’s right to privacy and family life. The council must by law consider rights set out in the Charter. It responded by granting extra time to make other arrangements for her parents. This did not mean planning regulations were changed or disrupted, nor was costly litigation involved. The Charter facilitated a review of a decision at a local level which considered the needs of frail, elderly people.
PIAC considered the woman’s situation if the same scenario had taken place in NSW. It was much more likely, according to PIAC, that her complaint would have needed to go through a formal dispute resolution system. Unlike in Victoria, public authorities have no legal responsibility to consider human rights of the vulnerable. In PIAC’s view, unless a public authority exercised discretion gratuitously, it is likely that the woman would have had to take her case to the NSW Land and Environment court to review the council’s notice. This would be extremely stressful and costly. Many such cases aren’t pursued by applicants because of personal circumstances such as resources, stress and other pressures.
The PIAC submission gives three more comparative case studies which illustrate how the Charter’s oversight of government services provides efficient and effective ways to assist people in their dealings with government. This is one of the Charter’s functions which would be removed if the majority recommendation of the SARC report is accepted.
The advantages of a Charter-based process might appear small, indeed the Government majority of the SAR committee considered them so. But cumulatively across the thousands and millions of interactions between the public and government services it becomes very significant. It is clear from submissions to the Inquiry that welfare agencies overwhelmingly support the Charter for its benefits to their clientele. A short list of quotes from agencies is on the IsaiahOne website. By contrast submissions from some Christian groups stand out as the most prominent section of the community calling for the repeal of the entire Charter including its oversight of government services. The majority SARC report rejects a complete repeal.
In a number of Christian submissions there is scant reference to the effects of a repeal, or major reduction of the Charter, on the vulnerable. There is vague and passing mention made of alternative regimes to replace only one element of the Charter’s functions. These Christian submissions hold that all possible benefits are outweighed by the harms of a Charter. However the IsaiahOne submission suggests that such harms are dramatically overstated and often misguided. Regardless of the extent of this, it remains true that the only credible way to assess the value of a policy is to consider all aspects of the evidence. More importantly, from a Christian perspective, special consideration and attention deserves to be given to effects of public policy on ‘the oppressed, the orphan, the alien, the widow’. The evidence of these effects is not overlooked by the vast bulk of submissions to the Inquiry. Why have some Christian submissions done so with such apparent determination?
15 September, 2011