Government agrees to human rights training for Victorian public servants

By David Donaldson

July 25, 2016

The Victorian public sector will need to redouble its efforts to ensure a culture of human rights, the state government announced on Friday.

The Daniel Andrews government supports a range of norm-setting and education activities across the VPS as part of its response to last year’s review of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006.

Through the charter, the Victorian parliament requires state and local government to treat people fairly by acting compatibly with 20 fundamental rights and freedoms. Conducted by Michael Brett Young, former CEO of the Law Institute of Victoria, this was the second four-yearly review into the landmark legislation to consider how it is working and whether community expectations have changed.

The government will support 45 of the 52 recommendations made by the review either in full or in part. These will not fundamentally alter the charter, but should strengthen its implementation.

“One of our priorities will be to ensure that public sector employees, who are primarily responsible for ensuring people’s human rights are respected, receive appropriate training,” stated Attorney-General Martin Pakula.

To this end the Department of Justice and Regulation will give an additional $1.25 million this financial year for the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and Justice’s Human Rights Unit. The money will be used to develop human rights resources, deliver training across the bureaucracy and deliver the staged implementation of key recommendations supported by government.

The government also agreed to make a public statement of commitment to human rights and to have ministers reinforce in their dealings with departments and agencies their expectation that they should act compatibly with human rights.

The Victorian secretaries board will include the development of a human rights culture as part of its work in setting values and standards across the VPS. An inter-departmental committee will support this work by providing leadership and co-ordination for departments and agencies at the state government level.

The government agreed to encourage departments and agencies to embody human rights principles in organisational plans and policies and built relevant human rights capabilities into staff position descriptions and ongoing professional development.

It will also review the structure and placement of the Justice Department’s Human Rights Unit to consider how best it could continue to provide expert human rights advice to agencies.

Commission’s expansion curtailed

The VEOHRC will be given the power to request information to assist with its statutory functions, and public authorities will have a duty to assist.

The government did not agree to a recommendation that the VEOHRC engage with the private sector on building a broader human rights culture in the state. At present only public entities (and private entities performing functions on behalf of a public authority) are affected by the Act. Broadening obligations to the private sector has long been debated, but the government argues the commission should function on its statutory functions.

The review highlighted that more clarity was required on whether the existing Act applied to public authorities in a broad sense — including private companies running public transport or water services, for example — and public employees not hired under the Public Administration Act 2004. The government affirmed that it supports an expansive reading, and will consider whether amendments are required to confirm this in the legislation.

The 2015 review involved more than 60 face-to-face meetings, eight open community forums, and 109 written submissions to ensure a range of views and experiences informed the recommendations in the report.

Currently Victoria and the ACT are the only jurisdictions to have human rights charters. A recent parliamentary committee inquiry in Queensland could not reach a conclusion about whether the sunshine state also needed one.

Human Rights Charter has ‘made a huge difference’

The new equal opportunity and human rights commissioner, Kristen Hilton, welcomed the changes announced on Friday.

“In many ways Victoria is a true leader on human rights. These reforms will help strengthen the Charter and will ensure that more people are aware of their rights and responsibilities,” she said.

Hilton emphasised the importance of the education function but argues there is still work to be done to ensure accessible remedies for those whose rights have been breached.

“Much of the focus on human rights in Victoria is about preventing human rights breaches in the first place by ensuring public authorities are aware of their obligations.

“Education is critical. But we still need to give people who believe that their rights have been ignored or abused, a real opportunity to have their claims heard through a dispute resolution function,” Hilton says.

“This is the next step and we look forward to continuing to work with the Victorian government to ensure that human rights complaints and concerns can be properly addressed.”

The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities has “made a huge difference” thinks Kate Jenkins, former equal opportunity and human rights commissioner and now Australian sex discrimination commissioner.

“We’ve been learning as we’ve gone along, and it’s been a really good starting place, but I think it will continue to be improved,” she told The Mandarin earlier this year.

The VPS does well on ensuring human rights are upheld compared to other employers, she thinks — though it’s not perfect.

“I would say the VPS is better, but like the rest of the community there are still issues about diversity in leadership levels, about attracting a diverse workforce, and about improving equality at all those levels in the workforce. I think it has many of the same challenges as exist everywhere else,” she explained.

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