Former High Court justice Michael Kirby AC CMG has said the time has come for Australia to consider the introduction of a Bill of Rights, in order to better protect the fundamental principles of equality before the law.
Speaking last week in Melbourne at the Diversity Council of Australia’s third Anna McPhee Memorial Oration on Diversity & Inclusion, Mr Kirby reflected that race has been a “real source of discrimination” in Australia and mused about the experience of LGBTI persons in facing inequality.
In Australia, he posited, there are “very few weapons” through which one can fight injustice “if politicians in the majority don’t feel it is a matter they are interested in or that there are no votes in it”.
“This is why I believe that we in Australia have reached a time when we should consider adopting a federal Bill of Rights, a federal statute of rights, and we should do so quickly,” he said.
“You might say, ‘Well, that isn’t something that is likely to happen in the recent political events that have occurred.’ I am not quite so sure. Basically, the idea of finding the fundamental principles that bind us together and that our rules for a fair society are principles that should be bipartisan and not consigned to one side of politics.”
A Bill of Rights has three important values, Mr Kirby continued.
“The first value is that it gives us something to teach kids at school about universal human rights. And the things we share together. Not just the citizens, the human beings, respecting one another,” he argued.
The second, he continued, is the Victorian experience with its Charter of Rights and Obligations: the reason “why there are not so many cases [against proposed or introduced legislation] is because you provide a mechanism for having the problems ironed out in the drafting stage. They have to sharpen their mind on the universal principles”.
And the third reason, he outlined, is that a Bill of Rights “provides a hook on which to hang the arguments of inequality and injustice. In Australia, as I was going up, there was no hook on which to hang the injustice to gay people. There was nothing much that women could do except agitate in the political realm. And the gays couldn’t agitate in the political realm because they had to keep their head down and keep on pretending”.
DCA CEO Lisa Annese supported Mr Kirby’s arguments, saying a Bill of Rights would provide Australia with an opportunity.
“It would give us the opportunity to develop our national identity, to enshrine the principles we are prepared to stand for in a positive and inclusive way. This framing of human rights will have a positive flow on to the workplace where people’s diversity of identity can be respected and celebrated,” she said.
Australian Human Rights Commission president Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM added: “At present, we are not paying sufficient attention to the impact of laws and policies on people. When Parliament makes a law, there should be full consideration of the impact on people’s human rights and the justification for any infringements of rights.”