THE NEW South Wales legal profession has welcomed the decision of the state Attorney General to put a charter of rights on the agenda for discussion.
NSW Law Society president June McPhie 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.
Her comments came after a The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) report in which NSW Attorney-General Bob Debus said he would “take a proposal to cabinet to invite public consultation on the values and rights Parliament should protect”, the SMH reported.
“It could guarantee freedoms such as the vote, a fair trial, freedom of assembly, property rights and freedom from torture and racial discrimination. The charter — similar to those in Victoria, the ACT, Britain and New Zealand — could also bind government agencies, including the police service, over their treatment of employees and the public,” the SMH reported.
Unlike other western democracies, including the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, Australia has no Bill of Rights or Human Rights Act, the Law Society’s McPhie 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.
She argued that while the ACT has enacted a statutory charter of rights and Victoria is planning one, “our largest state [is] in danger of being excluded from an important national debate”.
“NSW needs to develop a panel to facilitate public discussion to explore the arguments for and against a Bill of Rights. The community deserves to be consulted and should be given the opportunity to have their say,” said McPhie.
On a national level, the peak body representing the profession has also spoken publicly about the need for a Bill of Rights. Law Council of Australia president John North spoke to Lawyers Weekly in February this year, noting that Australia is the only advanced western nation without a Bill of Rights. There is therefore nothing to call our legislators to account, North said.
“You can see it in the terrorism legislation, in our dealing with Australians in custody overseas, such as David Hicks, Mamdouh Habib, the Bali Nine and the sad Van Ngyugen saga,” he said.
It is especially important to have a proper discussion at a national level about the need for a Bill of Rights and at the very least legislative requirements at all levels that our governments look at the actual effect of legislation on our way of life before enactment. Too much legislation is brought in overnight without adequate consultation.
“The Prime Minister remains utterly opposed to a Bill of Rights and it may be that progress will only be achieved slowly over time,” North said.