Today the Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland released the government’s response to the National Human Rights Consultation, a process which was originally launched in December 2008 and delivered its final report [PDF] to the government on 30th September 2009. It is doubtful that too many people within the human rights lobby are going to be pleased. Recommendation 18 of the report, the adoption of a federal Human Rights Act, has been point blank rejected by the Rudd Government.
The Attorney-General summarises the government’s position on this matter in his Foreword to the government’s response – a so-called National Human Rights Framework:
The Framework does not include a Human Rights Act or Charter. While there is overwhelming support for human rights in our community, many Australians remain concerned about the possible consequences of such an Act. The Government believes that the enhancement of human rights should be done in a way that as far as possible unites, rather than divides, our community. The Government is committed to positive and practical change to promote and protect human rights. Advancing the cause of human rights in Australia would not be served by an approach that is divisive or creates an atmosphere of uncertainty or suspicion in the community.
Personally I am not entirely sold on the idea of a federal Human Rights Act. However, I am somewhat confused by the assertion that the introduction of a national act would be somehow “divisive” or would create an atmosphere of “uncertainty or suspicion”. Surely one could argue quite effectively that the absence of any legal bedrock on human rights in Australia is a fairly considerable source of division and uncertainty? A federal Human Rights Act would lay Australia’s human rights cards on the table for all to see. Presently, is it not the case that Australia’s human rights cards are scattered across the states and territories, indistinct and not clearly defined in any national sense? We seem to be dwelling in an “she’ll be right” environment of implied rights, which works quite well for the white bread majority of us who are in practice unlikely to have their rights impinged, but probably doesn’t hold up so well for those on the fringes. Considering recent developments in indigenous affairs policy, the plight of Aboriginal Australians is a case in point.
The framework document does follow through on some worthwhile measures suggested by the consultation, including the application of a new “human rights test” to new bills passing through parliament. The government has opted for a cop-out as far as the ongoing human debate is concerned however, pledging to review the operation of the framework only in 2014 – a date that seems rather cleverly calculated to fall after not only the forthcoming election but the one after that as well. I guess that’s political code for “we didn’t really want to talk about human rights in this election campaign, and we’re definitely not going to talk about it in the next one”.
All things considered, it’s hard not to view the government’s performance on this issue as rather weak, and the outcome here as an indictment of the Rudd Government’s use of the public consultation as a mechanism for guiding policy. If you’re going to make public consultations part of your modus operandi as a government, you better well make sure that you provide a robust explanation for why you have flatly rejected the recommendations of the people you are consulting.