COINCIDENCE or otherwise, the ACT Government’s confirmation that, 215 years after colonisation, Australia would soon have its first-ever Bill of Rights, couldn’t have been timed better.
The ACT’s Attorney-General Jon Stanhope chose to make the big announcement on 22 October, strangely enough the only day US president George W. Bush spent in Australia since being elected almost three years ago.
But rather than pandering to the ‘The Land of the Free’, whose cherished values are thought by many to be underpinned by the most recognised charter in the world, Stanhope chose to mark the occasion by slamming the US over its human rights track record of late.
“Recent events have shown quite clearly these rights cannot be taken for granted,” he said. “Terrorism poses a serious threat to human rights, but the war on terror waged by the US and its coalition partners are a potent reminder to us all that even in one of the world’s greatest democracies, the abuse of human rights is not far away.”
Condemning the prolonged detention of Australian terror suspects Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks as a “dreadful fiasco”, Stanhope said there was no room for complacency about the importance of fundamental rights “either at home or overseas”.
The ACT version will be introduced in the non-conventional form of legislation, to be known as the Human Rights Act.
“This Bill will be the first human rights legislation in the country and will ensure that we do not lag behind international standards of human rights protection,” Stanhope said.
Replicating provisions of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the new legislation will protect basic personal liberties such as rights to life, physical well-being, privacy, self-determination and freedom from forced labour.
At this stage it will not, however, incorporate economic, social and cultural rights as proposed by a committee specially convened by the ACT Government to investigate the desirability of a charter.
“In examining this issue further we will have to take into account the special constitutional and service delivery arrangements that apply in the ACT, such as the arrangements relating to health services, education and the provision of housing,” Stanhope explained.
The Bill will also have the substantive effect of ensuring all ACT laws be interpreted with regard to civil and political rights set out therein. As a result, all future proposed legislation shall be vetted for consistency with fundamental human rights.