Australia

'It's time': Renewed calls for Australia to adopt a charter of human rights

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Former Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs has renewed calls for a charter of human rights in Australia.

Human rights in Australia "have been in regression for nearly 20 years", former Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs said at an event in Melbourne on Tuesday.

Calling for Australia to adopt a charter of human rights, Professor Triggs said the country is failing in the human rights space.

"Both parliament and our courts have failed to protect human rights," she said.

Gillian Triggs, Greg Craven and Madelaine Chiam
Gillian Triggs, Greg Craven and Madelaine Chiam.
SBS News

Professor Triggs said the detainment of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru wouldn't be allowed to occur if Australia had a charter of rights.

"You might go to Manus Island, you might go to Nauru, you might go to any one of Australia's mainland detention centres," she said.

"I have seen children held in detention for a year without education, I have seen people without medical care, in desperate need for that care.

"The parliament has made those laws that have made these inhumane, and cruel policies. I say that is inconsistent with Australian law and it's inconsistent with our international legal obligations."

Speaking alongside Professor Triggs was Greg Craven, the vice-chancellor of Australian Catholic University.

He disagreed with Professor Triggs, saying a charter, or bill, of rights just wouldn't work in Australia. 

"What we've got here is a dodgy promise, based on a false premise, that doesn't even work," he said.

'A lot of wrongs to repair'

Earlier this year former High Court judge Michael Kirby also called for Australia to adopt a national bill of human rights.

He said a bill of rights would address Australia's past wrongs against women, migrants, LGBTIQ+ communities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

"We've had a lot of wrongs to repair and looking only to Parliament to repair and looking only to parliament to repair them is not always a very effective way to address the problem," he said.

The ACT, Victoria and, most recently, Queensland have already introduced their own Human Rights Bills and Mr Kirby said a national bill is inevitable.

"The proposal in Australia is to have a model based on the New Zealand and the UK law that permits the bringing of proceedings before the courts," he said.

"That will help to draw attention but leave the last word to parliament."

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, Australia is the only Western democracy without a national Human Rights Act or bill of rights.

Queensland passed their Human Rights Bill in February, following the lead of the ACT, which enacted their charter in 2004 and Victoria, where the legislation has been in force since 2006.

Professor Triggs said a national human rights bill should follow the models adopted at the state and Territory levels as well as the examples seen overseas.

"Over many years In Canada, New Zealand, France, the UK and much of Europe, judges have continued to respect the rule of law," she said.

"The sky has not fallen in and fundamental freedoms have been protected against overreaching parliaments."

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Explained: Freedom of speech in Australia
Explained: Freedom of speech in Australia

She said this would ensure that Australia does not experience the same challenges presented by the US Bill of Rights, which is entrenched in the US Constitution.

But Professor Craven warned that legislated charter of rights was a 'step on the way' to a constitutionally entrenched bill of rights.

"We've been talking about a bill of rights forever, charter is the new camouflage," he said. 

What exactly a national charter or bill of rights would include is still up for debate.

Greg Craven and Gillian Triggs debate whether Australia needs a bill or charter of human rights
Greg Craven and Gillian Triggs debate whether Australia needs a bill or charter of human rights
SBS News

But Queensland’s bill covers 23 rights including the right to life, freedom of movement, freedom of religion and belief, and cultural rights both generally and specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The ACT and Victoria have similar inclusions in their legislation, which protect 20 rights under their respective Acts.

In Queensland, Victoria and the ACT the legislation means that the state and territory governments, public servants, police and other public authorities must consider human rights when making decisions and delivering services.

It also means new laws are scrutinised to make sure they are compatible with the human rights legislation.

In Queensland, the first assessment of their Human Rights Act will occur in 2023, including consideration of whether new rights need to be added into the legislation.

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