Below are unedited extracts from last week’s debate at NSW Parliament House between the federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock and Shadow Attorney-General Nicola Roxon. Here, each answer Law Council of Australia president Stephen Southwood QC’s question about the possibility of a Bill of Rights for this country
Stephen Southwood QC’s question to Nicola Roxon, then asked of the Attorney-General
Should Australia have a Bill of Rights? If Australia doesn’t have a Bill of Rights are we in danger of falling behind the jurisprudence of other countries? Would a Labor government refer the question of a Bill of Rights to the Law Reform Commission?
We don’t have a current plan to have a Bill of Rights. It has been a long standing aspiration of many in the Labor party that we at some point in the future might be able to. We are 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.
So I think that there is plenty of opportunity in the future. I think that what has happened in the ACT provides us with a little bit of an experiment to see what happens when you have a legislative Bill of Rights. Certainly that is something that could be considered in the future but our immediate priorities are actually to restore human rights to a topic of interest and debate within the community and then to be able to work to make sure our discrimination laws are healthy and in place, that HREOC is restored to the independence that it deserves and a range of other backward changes that have been introduced by the current government are undone, including introducing age discrimination with a much weaker test than for every ground of discrimination and others.
So I think we have to be realistic that the community has never been very enthusiastic about a Bill of Rights, that we have some obligation to lead a debate on this issue, but that we have a lot of repair work that must be prioritised to be able to then have a healthy debate about where we might go some time in the future.
Well, the first point I would make is I think 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. We do have strong institutions, democratic institutions, the constitution of common law, a range of legislative measures including anti-discrimination legislation on a Commonwealth level that do promote and protect human rights.
We don’t support a Bill of Rights. We think it would engender unnecessary litigation to try and determine outcomes. And I think if you look at some of the arguments that Bob Carr has put, and it might be useful to note them. He argued a Bill of Rights introduced in Australia in 1901 would have most likely enshrined the White Australia policy. The Bill of Rights in the United States enshrined the right to bear arms.
In other words, Bills of Rights tend to become inflexible instruments, incapable of change and very often reflect the mores of the time, and not a mores [sic] that is developing for the better.