AFTER THE New South Wales legal profession welcomed the decision of the State’s Attorney General to put a Charter of Rights on the agenda for discussion, Queensland has followed suit.
In a letter to the Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, Queensland Law Society (QLS) president Rob Davis has endorsed the concept of a Charter “as a safeguard for the protection of fundamental human rights”.
Davis said last week that in the name of “fighting terror”, governments at all levels are introducing intrusive laws that “trample over” long accepted human rights. “It is timely that we consider the concept of a Bill or Charter of Rights in Queensland and nationally,” he said.
In his letter to the Premier, Davis noted: “You would be aware that the New South Wales Attorney-General, the Hon Bob Debus MP was reported recently as declaring his support for a Charter of Rights for his State which would allow courts to consider whether laws infringed basic human freedoms.
“The Attorney said he would be taking a submission to the NSW Cabinet ‘to invite public consultation on the values and rights Parliament should protect’, that this proposed Charter ‘could guarantee freedoms such as the vote, a fair trial, freedom of assembly, property rights and freedom from torture and racial discrimination’ but that it ‘would not go as far as a constitutional bill of rights such as those in the US and Canada [which] allow courts to declare laws invalid.”
The announcement by the NSW Attorney followed another earlier this year by the Victorian Government of its in principle commitment to introduce a Charter this year. The Tasmanian Government is about to begin a round of community consultations on the proposal.
The QLS urged the Queensland Government to indicate its in-principle support for the concept. Davis asked that it “move decisively” to initiate a community consultation process to consider the proposal.
Federal Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, has criticised Victoria’s plan to introduce a Charter, saying it would create a “lawyers’ feast” and transfer power to unelected judges, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
It noted, as well, that former NSW premier Bob Carr opposed a bill of rights, arguing that it transferred power to the courts and that it would lead to litigation over “naked strollers” and “vegetarian menus”.
But Davis noted that Ruddock’s fears are unwarranted if a Charter of Rights is based on the model outlined by the NSW Attorney General.
June McPhie, NSW Law Society president, said that discussion on this topic is becoming increasingly important for the future of Australia’s democracy. “We need to achieve a proper balance between security measures and the freedoms and liberties we all enjoy,” she said.
“The increased threat of terrorism, and public disorder concerns arising over the riots at Cronulla prompted Government to pass new laws, which have excited debate over the extent to which they might have abrogated fundamental rights,” she said.
In his letter to the Premier, Davis asked him to give the proposal “the most serious and sympathetic consideration”. As well, he said “given the moves in other States, I suggested that the Queensland Government could seek discussions at a national level — possibly by the Standing Committee of Attorneys General — which could aim at implementing, as far as possible, a national model Charter”.
Davis acknowledged that there would be some variation in views about what should be contained in a Charter of Rights, which he said makes the community consultation process essential. “The very existence of such a Charter would serve as a constant reminder to all politicians that they would have at least a moral and ethical responsibility to benchmark proposed laws to fundamental principles and that in itself is a good basis to consider such proposals.”