National human rights charter could aid public acceptance of government decision-making processes, Law Council says

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday November 19, 2020

(Image: Lukas Coch/AAP)

The peak body representing the legal profession in Australia has expressed concern over a lack of human rights training across federal departments, and has called on the commonwealth to implement a federal Human Rights Act.

In a speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday, Law Council of Australia president Pauline Wright noted that Australia is the only Western democracy without some form of a charter of rights at the national level. Many Australians don’t know that their human rights are not protected by the Constitution or legislation.

“Our Constitution protects very few rights, and those rights which have been so hotly debated during the pandemic are backed by few Constitutional or statutory guarantees,” she said.

COVID-19 has illustrated a need for a greater understanding that multiple rights may be at play in any given situation, and that tensions can arise between conflicting rights, Wright said.

Following the lead of Queensland, Victoria and the ACT, a federal Human Rights Act would provide an established framework that sets out the core principles to resolve those tensions.

“A human rights charter will assist public acceptance of government decision-making processes — including for decisions which must be made against rapidly unfolding circumstances such as seen during the pandemic.”

The Law Council has launched a refreshed policy position on the matter. It states that the federal Human Rights Act should place explicit duties on public authorities to “give proper consideration to human rights in the development of policy and the making of decisions”, and to act compatibly with human rights.

Entities such as the Australian Human Rights Commission or public interest groups would also be given the power to initiate proceedings, intervene, or act as amicus in proceedings brought by others.

Read more: Triggs: public servants should know human rights obligations

Wright said the council has been concerned that there is a lack of human rights engagement and training across federal departments and processes more generally.

“This may result in human rights not being properly considered when cabinet decisions are made, laws are designed, and policies and programs are implemented. Human rights compatibility statements — often lacking in substance and quality — are tacked on at the end of the process, rather than being baked in at the beginning,” she said.

The council believes that a “human rights ethos” established across the public and private sectors, aged care, disability services, childcare, education, health and detention facilities, could “curb the systemic need” for Royal Commissions into social justice failures in Australia.

“A federal Human Rights Act would be a powerful tool to build the edifice of Australia’s international human rights obligations, ensuring that the decisions and actions of our governments are guided by the time-honoured values of freedom, equality, justice, compassion and dignity,” Wright said.

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