September, 2010 – the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Bill 2010 has been re-introduced to the House of Representatives. The Bill has been forwarded to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee for inquiry and report by 23 November 2010. More information is available online here: http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/legcon_ctte/human_rights_bills_43/index.htm
The Bill follows from the Government’s response (see below) to the National Consultation on Human Rights. It is should attract bi-partisan support since in 2009 the Shadow Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, suggested a mechanism along these lines to improve the Parliament’s scrutiny of legislation in terms of human rights. Submissions on the Bill may be submitted to the Committee (see the website).
April, 2010 – The federal Government has responded to the report from the National Consultation on Human Rights. Its response is entitled Australia’s Human Rights Framework. The chair of the committee which undertook the Consultation, Father Frank Brennan, is “disappointed” with the Government’s response. Before looking at why Father Brennan feels this way, let’s consider positives in the announcement.
- The Government is investing a substantial amount into education on human rights.
- The Government is acting on some international treaties, such as ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (while useful, this step would have more meaning if it was enacted into a domestic Charter)
- The complex patchwork of federal discrimination statutory legislation is being integrated into one Act
- There will be better scrutiny of legislation with additional Senate review process and the requirement for ’statements of compatibility’ with human rights to be tabled with new legislation.
What problems might exist with the Government’s response?
- One problem is that the Senate review and compatibility statement processes deny a basic advantage of Charters: greater accountability. By denying any role to the judiciary, there is little impetus for Parliamentarians to check themselves when it comes to human rights violations.
- The Framework also raises questions about its practicality. For instance, the statements of compatibility are to be made against seven human rights treaties. This seems overly complex compared with using a single Human Rights Act, which integrates the most tested and well-understood human rights into a single statement.
- Ultimately, the Government’s response is a product of politics rather than policy. It admits as much in its preface to its Framework, which notes that, “the cause of human rights in Australia would not be served by an approach that is divisive or creates an atmosphere of uncertainty or suspicion in the community”.