ELECTION PROMISES are easily made, but the Australian Human Rights Group (AHRG) is determined that the Federal Government’s commitment to a national consultation on human rights will not be easily forgotten.
In a formal letter to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Attorney-General Robert McClelland, the AHRG has set out a framework for a democratic consultation process, one that would provide “an opportunity to discuss our common values and articulate a shared vision”.
This is the second letter the AHRG has sent to the Federal Government in two months, but the organisation, made up of more than 20 community law and human rights groups, has yet to receive a formal response from the Government.
Phoebe Knowles, a Minter Ellison solicitor currently on secondment at the Human Rights Law Resource Centre (HRLC), said the second letter is an important reminder for the Government to act on its election promise.
“The desire to send the second letter was to reiterate that, as we move towards the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, the Australian Government should act on its election promise and announce a consultation,” Knowles said.
Knowles is confident that the Government will act in accordance with its election promises, regardless of the current economic crisis.
“In addition to the fact that there has been budget allocation, I think the Government takes its election commitments very seriously. I think the Prime Minister is very interested to ensure that his Government is accountable,” she said.
She added that an economic downturn, far from distracting attention from the issue, would make human rights even more important to protect the rights of the economically disadvantaged.
“The economic change will certainly require that the Government look at prioritising how the Australian economy should respond, however that shouldn’t mean that this election promise is forgotten, nor does it mean that human rights are any less important … this consultation shouldn’t slip off the radar because there’s a change in the global economy.”
Knowles envisages that a full consultation would take between six and nine months and would be an apolitical process.
“It should enable Australians to consider the protection of human rights without the heat of a political debate or a party political dispute,” she said.
“I think the Labor party has been very aware of that and is very wise in their decision to avoid announcing whether they are in favour of or against — pending the outcome of any consultation.”
However, an entirely apolitical process seems unlikely; Shadow Attorney-General Senator Brandis has already publicly criticised the proposed consultation process when speaking to students at the James Cook University Law School in August: “While the Budget announcement stipulated that the money is to be used for ‘national public consultations’, I fear that it will only be used to assist to make the case for a bill of rights, and the case against a bill of rights will fail to receive the public attention that it deserves,” he said.
However, Knowles believes Senator Brandis’s stance is not necessarily reflective of views among his fellow party members. “Even though Senator Brandis put forward his position, it’s not necessarily a view that has been endorsed by the leader of the Opposition,” she said.
Similar human rights consultations have already been held in the ACT, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia. The results in those states showed a preference for better rights protections, particularly for marginalised and disadvantaged Australians.
“In the Victoria consultation there was an 86 per cent majority in favour of better protections, and 94 per cent once you counted standardised submissions and postcard submissions were also included,” Knowles said.
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