The fact that Australia stands as the only western democracy without a human rights law is "shameful", former High Court Justice Michael Kirby said in a speech at Western Australia's Murdoch University on Wednesday.
Kirby, who presented this afternoon at the inaugural Michael D.Kirby Annual Human Rights Forum, told the audience that a national human rights law is necessary both to restore our international reputation and to ensure that the rights of Australians are protected.
Kirby specifically addressed some of the criticisms that have been directed at the possible introduction of an Australian human rights act, such as the common argument that is would result in a shift of power away from Parliament towards the judiciary, thus undermining Parliament.
"It is Parliament that would state the fundamental rights of the Australian people in a human rights law. It would do so after unprecedented public consultation. Although courts would have a function to examine suggested departures from those rights, it is Parliament that would retain the last word," he said. "Far from damaging our democratic institutions, such a development would strengthen them."
He also opposed the argument that such an act isn't necessary in Australia, pointing out that Australia's history has been "repeatedly marked with unfortunate illustrations of ... injustice".
He gave the examples such as the 150-year Parliamentary failure to acknowledge Indigenous people's traditional right to land, the White Australia policy which discriminated against Asian immigrants, and longstanding criminal laws which discriminated against homosexuals. "Sadly, Australia cannot claim that their parliamentary system works so perfectly that it does not occasionally need the stimulus of reminders that the law sometimes treats people (usually minorities) unjustly and unequally," he said.
He closed by saying that he hoped the outcome of the consultation would be the adoption of a federal statute of rights, actionable in courts. "We can trust Australia's courts and judges to get such decisions right, to learn from the judges of other countries and to use their role to strengthen our parliamentary democracy by making it truly attentive to equal justice under law for all Australians," he said.
- Zoe Lyon