Human Rights Commission calls for a Human Rights Act

Image from shutterstock

Contributed by Jim Hayes

The Australian Human Rights Commission has taken aim at the robodebt program, indefinite detention and Covid policies in a new report setting out a model for a federal Human Rights Act.

Its solution is for the Australian parliament to pass vote a human rights act into legislation. The argument is that this would provide a safeguard against abuse. Perhaps it would make life somewhat more difficult for politicians and bureaucrats to do harm. But it will not stop it, if the intention of those who would violate the intention is strong enough.

This does not mean that there shouldn’t be a Human rights Act. There should be, at least if the content does provide some clear rules, compensation for the victim, and a penalty for the abuser. An act with no teeth is useless.

The proposed act would enshrine into law the concepts of equality before the law, the right to life, protection of children and families, freedom of movement, association, and expression; freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief; rights to education, health, an adequate standard of living, access to social security, and a healthy environment.

This was revealed by the Commission’s president Rosalind Croucher, who told a press conference on Tuesday (7 March):

“A Human Rights Act is the central missing piece of government accountability in Australia.”

Photo by Paul Braven/AAP: Rosalind Croucher the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission

The fact that ensuring these rights is being talked about suggests that they exist only partially and conditionally in Australia. To change this, we need more than passing a law and to know why human rights are not properly protected.

Cartoon by Simon Kneebone

Since the first British settlement, the administration of law, government, bureaucracy, has involved giving advantage to some any suppressing others. Take the dispossession of those who had already lived here many tens of thousands of years. It can’t be denied that the convicts were treated differently to those involved in keeping the colony going.

A little later, the privileges, or should we say the superior rights enjoyed by a group of landholders linked to the British wool industry and bankers, including a government only they had a right to vote for, created consequences. Creating the anger that eventually broke out in the rebellion at Ballarat.

Australia entered the era where money talks. Human rights had been turned into a commodity to be bought and sold, and this persists today. The more money you have, the more human rights you can buy for yourself.

History produced a constitution that enshrines this principle. This is why there is no guarantee of human rights written into it.

Why then aren’t we talking about constitutional change?

The problem is that the guarantee of human rights can only be made into a reality if there are fundamental changes to the law, and the nature of government and administration of the public sector, as part of a profound change to the structure of society, which puts an end to human rights as a commodity.

Those enjoying the benefits and have power are not likely to willingly give up the privilege. This means the rest of us are compelled to constantly fight for our rights. If an act passing through the parliament helps us do this, it contributes to the effort. and this depends on the detail.

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