Victoria’s charter losing its lustre for public servants

By David Donaldson

Monday September 21, 2015

Although Victorian government agencies have been largely successful in creating a culture of human rights, the state appears to have dropped the ball more recently, according to a report on the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities tabled in state parliament on Thursday.

Michael Brett Young
Michael Brett Young

In March, shortly after assuming office the Andrews government appointed Michael Brett Young, former CEO of the Law Institute of Victoria, to lead the 2015 review of the charter, nine years after it was introduced by the Bracks government.

Handing down 52 recommendations on a range of issues, Young argued that while the Victorian Public Sector had had successes, there was more work to be done. “Over time, implementation of the charter has helped to build a greater consideration of and adherence to human rights principles by the public sector, parliament and the courts in key areas,” he said. “But this progress has stalled.”

There had more recently been a “deprioritisation” of the charter, he argues:

“The first four years of active implementation of the charter was not enough to embed a human rights culture. My consultations highlighted a deprioritisation of the charter in recent years, which has set back the development of a human rights culture in Victoria. In many ways, the government needs to look afresh at its charter implementation strategy.”

Although a submission by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission argues that “the use of the charter has matured beyond simple compliance with the law” and was driving initiatives to extend human rights principles across the public sector, a Victorian Council of Social Service submission notes that “knowledge and application of the charter remains inconsistent”:

“VCOSS members provided examples where they had attempted to use the charter to raise an issue or advocate on behalf of clients but these were not treated as serious considerations by government departments. Community organisations also reported that some staff in public authorities appear to have little knowledge of the charter, do not recognise its relevance to their work or do not incorporate it in their policies or decision making.”

The report’s recommendations for the public sector focus on the need for leaders to make explicit that human rights principles are expected to be applied.

It recommends that the Victorian government make “a public statement of commitment to human rights and ministers reinforce in their dealings with departments and agencies their expectation that they should act compatibly with human rights”, that departments work human rights into organisational plans, policies and procedures, and the Victorian Secretaries Board “include the development of a human rights culture as part of its work in setting values and standards across the Victorian public sector. An inter-departmental committee should support this work by providing leadership and coordination for departments and agencies at the state government level.”

Additionally, Young recommended the government review the structure and placement of the Human Rights Unit in the Department of Justice and Regulation, which “now has limited capacity”, “so that it can provide centralised expertise on human rights within government.”

Victoria Police and a new community health organisation, cohealth, which was created by three community health services merging, were offered as examples of “how to set an organisation-wide vision”, with each having made human rights central to their organisational values.

Previous data cited by the report suggest a human rights culture has infiltrated most of the sector, at least as far as bureaucrats are concerned:

“In 2014, 78% of respondents indicated that they agree, or strongly agree with the statement ‘I understand how the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities applies to my work’. However, eight per cent either disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement and 14% said they didn’t know. This proportion rose to 16% who didn’t know how the charter affects them as an employee. Ten per cent didn’t know if their organisation has policies that require employees to act in ways that are consistent with human rights and three per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed that their organisation does have such policies.”

Young praised the work of the Victorian Public Sector Commission’s work incorporating human rights rights principles into its employee code of conduct:

“We are not starting from scratch in the effort to build human rights values into the public sector. Across the Victorian public sector, I have seen a lot of positive work to set the mission and put human rights within the context of public sector values. One key initiative was to incorporate human rights into the Code of Conduct for Victorian Public Sector Employees.”

The report is the result of more than 60 face-to-face meetings as part of the review process, as well as eight open community forums. 109 written submissions were received.

The government says it will now consider the 52 recommendations of the review, and will respond in due course.

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