International Human Rights Day: reminder of urgent need for reform in Australia

6th Dec 2023

International Human Rights Day this weekend is a reminder that Australia is the only Western democracy without a federal human rights act, bill of rights or charter.

“A federal legislative human rights act would benefit us all and would especially lead to significant, positive, life-changing outcomes for some of the most vulnerable people in our community,” said Mr Shaun Marcus, National President, Australian Lawyers Alliance.

“It would promote the rule of law, the accountability of decision-makers in Australia and create a stronger human rights culture in this country that focuses on diversity, inclusion, equality and respect.”

Ahead of International Human Rights Day on Sunday 10 December, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) has launched a policy position paper entitled A federal Human Rights Act: The case for a legislative human rights instrument in Australia.

“The ALA strongly supports the introduction of a federal legislative human rights act, and this policy paper explains why this reform is necessary and what human rights should be protected within a human rights act,” said Mr Marcus.

“We are confident that having federal human rights laws in place will result in better treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, whistleblowers and asylum seekers, as well as improved quality in service delivery in disability services, aged-care services, veterans’ services, social security services and more.

“A federal human rights act would ensure that those who wield power are subject to a code of conduct that would prevent them from exercising this power in a way that infringes upon people’s rights.

“There are many examples of significant litigation where breaches of fundamental rights were at the heart of the case. In so many of these cases, a federal human rights act would have either prevented litigation or resulted in a better outcome.”

The ALA supports the Human Rights Commission’s proposed human rights framework as outlined in Free and Equal – Position paper: A Human Rights Act for Australia, with some specific exceptions regarding the definition of ‘public authority’ as well as notification to Parliament regarding laws that are incompatible with a federal human rights act.

“In our view, courts should be included within the definition of ‘public authority’ in a federal human rights act, mirroring the approach taken in the United Kingdom and in New Zealand,” said Mr Marcus. “Inclusion of the courts within the definition of ‘public authority’ in this way would create an obligation on the courts to develop, interpret and apply the common law in a manner consistent with human rights values in addition to their statutory interpretation obligations.

“In the interests of accessibility and transparency, the Commonwealth Attorney-General should be obligated to notify the Parliament where the Attorney-General is satisfied that an inconsistency between a human right and a Commonwealth statute has arisen in legal proceedings.

“We need to catch up with accepted international standards when it comes to protecting the rights of our citizens. Human rights laws are positive and effective mechanisms for safeguarding the dignity and well-being of everyone in a healthy democracy.”

Read the full paper here.

Tags: Human rights