Pre-eminent human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson hit back at opponents of a statutory bill of rights at talk delivered on Wednesday 1 April.
In his talk, delivered at the City Recital Hall in Sydney, Robertson responded first to the argument that given Australia's good human rights performance, we don't need a bill of rights.
Robertson pointed out that Australia doesn't perform as well on many human rights indicators as people might expect - for example, the Freedom House Index of Global Press Freedoms ranks Australia just 39th in the world, while the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index ranks Australia 21st.
"We don't have an awful record, we do quite well," Robertson conceded. "But we don't do as well as we think we do, and we aren't as good as we might be."
Robertson also responded to the argument that a statutory bill of rights would give too much power to unelected judges at the expense of an elected parliament. A claim, he said, that is argued "most precipitously by unelected journalists".
The fact that politicians are elected, Robertson said, "doesn't mean they should be able to do anything they want", and he pointed out that the reason for having an unelected judiciary is to act a check on political power.
"It's part of the democratic system to have unelected judges and journalists keeping the buggers honest," he said.
Robertson pointed out that - unlike the position in the US or Canada - the Australian Government is only contemplating a statutory bill of rights and has expressly excluded constitutional change.
Judges would not, therefore, have the power to knock down laws they deemed to be inconsistent with the bill of rights - they would only have power to make declarations - declarations which the government could choose to ignore.
"This doesn't seem to me to be giving huge amounts of power to judges," he said. "It provides the courts with better principles to make fairer decisions."
Finally, he challenged the argument that has been put forward by some media organisations that a bill of rights is being pushed for by lawyers only because it would provide them with a "banquet" of work. Robertson pointed out that "there are lawyers and there are lawyers", explaining that while there are lawyers who work in large corporate law firms who earn a lot of money, they won't be the ones deriving work from a bill of rights.
The lawyers who will do so, Robertson argued, aren't in it for the money. They work in public interest originations such as legal aid, community legal centers and the Aboriginal Legal Service, where salaries are often less than those of mid-level journalists.
"The argument that [a bill of rights] will be a banquet for lawyers is an argument that doesn't understand the legal profession," he said.
Robertson's talk was an out-of-season event forming part of the Sydney Writers Festival, which officially kicks off in May.
- By Zoe Lyon