Australia Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance, Welfare and equalities

Australia’s need for a Human Rights Act – a step closer

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On 30 May 2024, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights tabled its extensive inquiry report regarding Australia’s Human Rights Framework.

The Terms of Reference for the inquiry required the Committee to:

  • review the scope and effectiveness of Australia’s Human Rights Framework and the National Human Rights Action Plan;
  • consider whether the Framework should be re-established, as well as the components of the Framework, and any improvements that should be made;
  • consider developments since 2010 in Australian human rights law (both at the Commonwealth and State and Territory levels) and relevant case law; and to
  • consider any other relevant matters.

Over the course of the Committee’s inquiry, the Committee received 335 public submissions, over 4,000 form or campaign letters, and held six public hearings, during which it heard evidence from a range of community groups, religious organisations, government bodies and experts. All 4,000 form letters were in support of a Human Rights Act and of the submissions, over 87% were in favour (including those who expressed support for a constitutionally enshrined model), and only 4% were opposed.

The Committee’s final report is over 480 pages, including a dissenting report from Coalition members of the Committee who oppose the introduction of a human rights act, and additional comments from Senator Lidia Thorpe pinpointing legislative recommendations that in principle seek to strengthen the right to self-determination by First Nations peoples and to protect vulnerable people from human rights violations committed by the State.

The Committee made 17 detailed recommendations, including that the government re-establish and significantly improve Australia’s Human Rights Framework, which should include:

  • comprehensive and effective protection of human rights in legislation, through the establishment of a Human Rights Act;
  • a significant and ongoing commitment to national human rights education;
  • requirements for public servants to fully consider human rights in the development of legislation and policies;
  • enhancements to human rights parliamentary scrutiny;
  • enhancements to the role of the Australian Human Rights Commission;
  • review of Australia’s legislation, policies and practices for compliance with human rights; and
  • measures to monitor progress on human rights.

The Report’s chapters include a very helpful background to human rights protections in Australia; an overview of how Australia’s human rights framework currently works; the range of human rights concerns in Australia; arguments regarding an Australian Human Rights Act; what rights to protect, a human rights act model; developing a culture of respect for human rights; and how the Committee arrived at its views and recommendations. A very useful document for future reference.

The Committee’s report also includes an example of legislation for a National Human Rights Act, building on decades of work and reinforcing recommendations from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s landmark Free + Equal report, which was released at the time the Committee’s inquiry was getting underway.

The Commission’s President, Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM, welcomed the Committee’s report and urged the Government to act on its recommendations. Professor Croucher said;

“Human rights are not adequately protected at the national level. Whenever laws are made, their impact on people’s rights and wellbeing should be front of mind. We have before us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to anchor the protection of basic rights in law. The time is right to strengthen Australia’s human rights framework.

“We all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter who we are or where we live. A Human Rights Act would embed these values into public life and promote better understanding of human rights. It would give people access to justice if their rights are violated and make governments more accountable for protecting human rights – no matter which party is in power,” Professor Croucher said.

“Australia’s current human rights framework is outdated, ineffective, and in desperate need of reform. In addition to a Human Rights Act, we need to strengthen federal anti-discrimination laws, ensure greater parliamentary oversight of human rights, and educate the community and policy makers about human rights.”

Three jurisdictions in Australia already have a Human Rights Act: Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory and Queensland. (See this earlier Policy Briefing: A Human Rights Act for Australia: How will it affect local government?)

The Committee’s recommendations are now with the Australian Government to respond. It’s up to the Government to decide if Australia will have a Human Rights Act. The Committee, very helpfully, produced a draft of what a Human Rights Act might look like, so half the work has already been done.

As Bruce Chen, Senior Lecturer in Law at Deakin University, Julie Debeljak, Associate Professor at Monash University and Pamela Tate, Adjunct Professor at Monash University write in The Conversation, ‘Securing an Australian Human Rights Act would demonstrate that Australia is a modern democratic nation that values fairness, transparency and accountability.’



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