Victorian ombud Deborah Glass has revealed details of some of the thousands of human rights complaints she has dealt with in recent years, including cases where state government agencies have failed or succeeded in properly considering a person’s rights when making decisions.
In her latest report, released on Wednesday, Glass noted that public servants sometimes need to conduct a balancing act when dealing with human rights issues.
The report said that, in the case of the state government’s hard and fast lockdown of nine public housing tower blocks in July 2020, ‘the balancing act failed’.
“The ombudsman found that temporarily detaining residents in the towers was a reasonable measure to contain the outbreak of COVID-19. However, the decision to impose these restrictions with immediate effect was not based on direct health advice,” it said.
“Implementing an immediate lockdown without ensuring residents had enough food and medication breached the residents’ rights to humane treatment when deprived of liberty. The ombudsman also found the deputy chief health officer was not given enough time to consider human rights before signing the detention directions.”
Glass also pointed to positive examples of decision-making. One example occurred in August 2020, when a group of rock-climbers complained after Parks Victoria put up temporary fencing at two areas of the Grampians National Park, and signs telling people not to enter due to the rediscovery of Aboriginal artefacts.
Parks Victoria’s decision to fence off access to popular rock-climbing places ‘demonstrated the balance working’, the report noted.
“Parks Victoria had to weigh up the rights of rock-climbers with the cultural rights of Aboriginal peoples, to protect the area while cultural heritage surveys were prepared and communities consulted,” it said.
In another case of poor decisions, Glass recounted how a woman who was awaiting transit to a COVID-19 quarantine hotel was left ‘humiliated’. The woman was forced to urinate in a water bottle on a moving bus after being denied access to a toilet at Melbourne Airport.
Glass said the incident wouldn’t have occurred ‘had dignity been considered’.
“While it is important to manage infection risks, people must be treated humanely and with dignity,” she said.
“Although buses used in the quarantine program do not have bathrooms and stops are not permitted to prevent infection risks, people should be able to use facilities at the airport before being transported.”
Another ‘degrading’ pandemic-related incident involved a woman who uses a wheelchair and was lining up for a COVID-19 test. The woman had waited nearly four hours for a test, and asked staff if she could use the toilet. However, the site’s toilets were not wheelchair accessible, and the woman was forced to give up her spot in line so she could leave to find an accessible toilet.
“She was told she would have to return to the start of the line if she left. Tereza had to leave the queue and did not get her COVID-19 test,” the report noted.
After receiving a complaint from a bystander, the ombud contacted the Department of Health.
“In response to our enquiries, the department explained that in-home testing can be available for people with disabilities or chronic illness, and that testing sites should still make ‘reasonable adjustments’,” the report said.
“In Tereza’s case, the department said staff at the site should either have hired a disability accessible toilet, offered to test Tereza ahead of others or helped her get to an accessible toilet without losing her spot in the queue. As a result of our enquiry, the department contacted all COVID-19 testing sites and reminded them of their obligations.”
The Victorian ombud deals with more than 3,000 complaints with an obvious human rights issue every year.
The most common human rights complaints relate to humane treatment when in custody; protection of families and children; property rights; recognition and equality before the law; and protection from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Glass has called on public servants to be guided by the state’s Charter of Rights Act to ensure they get the balance right and make better decisions.
“The act of considering human rights is no more or less than putting people at the heart of decision-making,” she said.
Victoria, the ACT and Queensland are the only jurisdictions in Australia with dedicated human rights legislation.