Human rights under the Albanese government: The view from our President

The last two years have been unprecedented in many ways, COVID 19, escalating natural disasters, dire warnings of catastrophic climate change, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter. It is of no surprise that there was significant anxiety and anticipation around the result of this year’s federal election, particularly for civil libertarians and human rights advocates.

It may seem strange that the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties are offering our views so late in the piece, but we were waiting to see whether the Albanese government would be in majority or minority and for the Senate composition to firm up. It now seems clear that it will be in a slim majority.

Nonetheless, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we welcome the end of the Morrison government and are cautiously optimistic about the newly elected Albanese government.

The Morrison government opposed reform on almost every civil liberty and human rights issue imaginable. It governed by creating animosity and division, including a deplorable last minute attempt to make human rights for trans people an election issue after their already failed attempt to legislate away LGBTQI+ rights under the guise of a Religious Discrimination Bill. One overwhelmingly positive reform of the Morrison government was the passing of the Magnitsky style Act, which must be commended. 

The Albanese government brings with it many promises for which we now await delivery. The return of the Murugappan family to Biloela sent an important symbolic message that the new government operates in a different way to the former one, and that is very welcome. Prime Minister Albanese’s messaging about the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, likewise. But it will remain to be seen over the coming months as to whether the Albanese government is actually better for the country on civil liberties and human rights. While kinder, gentler, messaging and promises of equality are great, they are of little tangible effect without serious policy reform.  

NSWCCL is delighted to see the expansion of the cross bench. As our election scorecard showed, the minor parties and teal independents show the greatest promise for delivering positive reform for civil liberties and human rights. For too long the Coalition and the Labor Party have been on a dreadful unity ticket on civil liberties and human rights issues, (think about the ever expanding and intrusive counter terrorism and national security laws) and we hope that the new parliamentary composition will bring this chapter to a close as the cross bench demand that the Labor Party does better. Over the coming weeks, we will see just how much bargaining power the cross bench ends up with as it continues its call for reform. It is with sadness that Senator Rex Patrick has not been re-elected, he was a great friend of civil libertarians and must be congratulated for his work in the parliament. We hope that the voice of the electorate is recognised with crossbench members playing more significant roles on important review committees like the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

The Albanese government could do a couple of things over the next few weeks which would demonstrate a significant departure from the ways of the Morrison government, it could:

  1. Immediately drop the cases against Bernard Collaery and Witness K and agree to pay their costs. 
  2. Make representations to the British government to bring Julian Assange home. 
  3. Bring Dr Helen Haines’ bill for a national integrity commission to a vote immediately, and support it.

These actions would not be merely symbolic gestures towards a kinder and gentler politics, but would rather demonstrate the presence of a mature government committed to accountability, integrity, civil liberties and human rights.

But the real test for Albanese government will be whether it has the courage to implement substantive reform policies which will improve the lives of individuals and enhance Australia’s international standing as a rights respecting democracy. Some examples: the international standing of the Australian Human Rights Commission must be restored. Asylum seeker and refugee policies must be reformed to accord with Australia’s international obligations and stop harming individuals fleeing conflict, discrimination and oppression. The Office of the Australian Information Commission, which has a significant role in government oversight through the administration of Freedom of Information and privacy law, requires adequate resourcing. 

While the list of required reforms is long, the benefits of achieving them will be worth the effort and will have real consequences for people’s daily lives.

Josh Pallas