GEORGE BRANDIS QC has labelled the long-standing bill of rights debate as “the debate we didn’t have to have”, announcing a new Liberal Party policy that will effectively form a political roadblock on the controversial topic.
Speaking to students at the James Cook University Law School, Townsville on 14 August, shadow Attorney-General Brandis criticised Attorney-General Robert McClelland’s ongoing support for an entrenched bill of rights, and the allocation of funds of $2.8 million towards consultation on the topic in the latest Federal Budget.
“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,” Senator Brandis said.
“I want to explain why, in the view of the Opposition, Australia does not need a bill or charter of rights, and why we consider that any attempt to impose one upon us would be at best wholly unnecessary, and, potentially, may result in unintended and much more dangerous consequences.”
He went on to give an impassioned speech about the existing framework of legislative and common law rights protection in Australia, drawing his allies from both sides of politics; including noted bill of rights objectors from the Labor ranks, former premier of NSW Bob Carr and NSW Attorney-General John Hatzistergos.
The shadow Attorney-General also pointed to periods in history where the title of a bill of rights carried with it no guarantees,
“Where the public culture is inhospitable to the rights of the individual, no amount of grandiose language will change it, and bills of rights become meaningless constitutional baubles — as the Nazi Bill of Rights (which guaranteed ‘the dignified existence of all people’), the Soviet Constitution, and the Bill of Rights of modern Zimbabwe, chillingly attest.
“Conversely, in a nation such as Australia, the very strength of our liberal democratic culture is the strongest reason why such an instrument is redundant.”
The shadow Attorney-General has issued a strong challenge to the Rudd Government; to demonstrate in no uncertain terms why Australia needs a bill of rights. But, given the longevity of the debate and the political funds and energy already invested by both sides of politics, it seems that Brandis’s speech will serve as a jab that spurs further debate rather than the knock-out punch he intended.