AUSTRALIA SHOULD be disappointed in itself, the first law officer of Victoria said last week. It is Australians’ “collective shame” that as a community we have failed to give life to the promise of the fair go and it is time we did things differently, he said.
Speaking at the Law Institute of Victoria last Tuesday, the State’s Attorney-General Rob Hulls argued for rescuing the concept of human rights from the political and media peripheries, and restoring it to its rightful place in our civic and legal mechanisms.
So far, Australia has been slack in implementing human rights strategies, Hulls said.
“We have failed to give our Indigenous community a fair go, whose systemic disadvantage is compounded by a history of violent dispossession and self-delusions of white virtue. We have failed to give a fair go to those who see refuge from persecution on our doorstep,” he said.
“We have dismantled independent agencies, abdicated our defence of the judiciary and sold the rights of Australians down the Potomac. In doing so, we have failed to defend the rule of law,” Hulls said.
Hulls urged his audience to encourage Victorians to remain open to change as the State Government embarks on a 12 month community consultation process led by a panel of eminent Victorians. Every lawyer and Victorian active in civic life has a responsibility to grapple with the issues of human rights in the state, he said.
“If we can build an impetus within the wider community, if the energy and desire to recognise and defend human rights springs from the ordinary person in the street, then we can begin to make the promise of the law a reality.”
His comments come after reports that federal Attorney-General Phillip suggested he intends to go ahead with plans to decimate the federal Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). As Hulls last week explained, Ruddock plans to use the Government’s majority in the Senate to reduce the number of HREOC Commissioners from five to three. As well, there are plans to require HREOC to seek the federal A-G’s approval before intervening in court cases.
Hulls condemned this proposal, arguing that because HREOC often tried to intervene in cases against decisions made by the Federal Government, this proposal will “gut the independence of our national human rights body”. “In my view [the proposal] reinforces the Federal Government’s appalling record on human rights in this country. It is a proposal [that] diminishes us all in its flagrant disregard of the independence of HREOC as a human rights watchdog,” Hulls said.
In light of the treatment of Mamdouh Habib and the tragic circumstances of Cornelia Rau, “the victim of a callous and disregarding system”, there needs to be vigilance in relation to human rights, said Hulls.
“In failing to conduct appropriate enquiries in both these matters, the Federal Government is abrogating its responsibilities to its citizens. Government should not and must not wring its hands while fundamental human rights are diminished and breached,” he said.
We must make amends for the failure of the Coalition, said Hulls, which involves looking at the experience of every Australian through the lens of human rights, and “cataloguing the rights that are violated when our civic mechanisms fail the vulnerable and building rights into the heart of bureaucratic and political activity”.
The solution may lie in strengthening independent agencies to bolster scrutiny of government, as some suggest, Hulls said. Others argue that our best defence is in the judiciary. As the Department of Justice now develops a team to appoint a process of community consultation in the State, Hulls urged his audience to remain open minded about possible remedies, limitations and roles of the Attorney-General and judiciary.