A BILL of rights for Australia is the only way to safeguard against the “wholesale removal of people’s rights” that took place with reforms that violated civil liberties, leading legal professionals said last week.
In articles published in the journal of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, that organisation, the Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory John Stanhope, leading human rights lawyer Julian Burnside QC, and constitutional lawyer George Williams have linked arms in a push for a Bill of Rights, which they said will entrench fundamental rights to freedoms in law.
Stanhope said the “expression of fundamental rights in a statutory or constitutional bill of rights is essential for any modern, pluralist democratic country”.
Williams argued there are “too many examples of our legal system failing to protect Australian from violations of their civil liberties”.
Initiatives such as the Victorian Government’s current investigation of a Charter of Human Rights for the state are important, said Williams, adding that Australia is the only western nation without a charter of rights.
According to Burnside, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Legislation Amendment Act 2002 involves “significant erosion of ordinary civil liberties”.
He argued that measures in the Act, coupled with the breadth and vagueness of the anti-terrorism offences, are a “recipe for the destruction of ordinary civil liberties as we know them”.
In light of anti-terrorism laws, Burnside said, “now more than ever it seems necessary” to entrench fundamental rights and freedoms in law.
Australian Lawyers Alliance president Tom Goudkamp last week argued an Australian Bill of Rights is the only method to ensuring that a “wholesale removal of people’s rights” does not occur. He used the example of reforms to workers compensation, motor vehicle accident and civil liability laws.
He said the introduction of a Bill of Rights, through a constitution by way of a referendum, would stop governments from passing laws that violate human rights.
“A Constitutional Bill of Rights is the cornerstone of a truly democratic nation that safeguards the rights and freedoms of its people,” Goudkamp said.
NSW Law Society president John McIntyre warned the State’s Premier earlier this year that the state is in danger of being left behind if the Premier does not put a Bill of Rights on the agenda for discussion. If steps are not taken by the NSW Government to engage in community consultation, he said, the State will be left on the sidelines in this important national debate.
“All major western democracies have adopted a Bill of Rights in one form or another except Australia. The ACT has done so and Victoria is moving close by assembling a consultative group to involve communities in the debate,” McIntyre said.
“NSW needs to take a similar approach and develop a panel to facilitate public discussion and ask the important question of whether our rights and responsibilities should be enshrined,” he said.
Speaking late last year at a legal debate with then Shadow Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock said: “human rights are best protected by ensuring the existing mechanisms that we have in place work effectively by educating the community about human rights and responsibilities”.
Roxon, noting that Labor had no current plan for a Bill of Rights, said the Party is “realistic about the way constitutional reform happens in this country and, to be frank, we have a lot of repair work to do in the human rights area in actually bringing the community along with us after we’ve really spent eight years of having human rights talked down and dismissed”.