Australians might be surprised to know there is a new Bill proposing an Australian Bill of Rights before the Australian Parliament.
There has not been much stomach for active campaigning in support of a national Bill of Rights in Australia since the bitter and crushing disappointment of the Rudd Government’s failure in 2010 to act on the recommendation of the National Human Rights Consultation Committee (the Brennan Report) for a federal human rights act. This surprising and weak betrayal of community expectations, following a year of extensive consultation and clear public support for a human rights act - and the subsequent loss of the 2013 election to the Abbott Government – put a long term dampener on the enthusiasm of all but the most determined of campaigners.
Australia remains alone among western democratic states in not having a human rights act or charter.
In recent years the Australian Parliament has enacted numerous new laws - and the Australian Government has enacted numerous new policies and programs - which unwarrantedly infringe individual liberties and rights and are in clear breach of our international human rights obligations.
Without the protections afforded by a Bill of Rights, strong and persistent opposition to these laws from many sections of the community has been powerless to stop their passage. Professor Gillian Triggs, the recently retired President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, repeatedly warned of the dangerous consequences for the rights and liberties of Australians of this situation – and was outrageously vilified by the Government and sections of the media for so doing.
So it is with tentative optimism that NSWCCL applauds the introduction of the Australian Bill of Rights Bill 2017 into the Federal Parliament by the independent MP Andrew Wilkie - with the support of independent MP Cathy McGowan.
It is a wide ranging Bill which Wilkie says is closely modelled on an earlier private member’s Bill introduced in 2001 by Dr Theophanous which did not get past a first reading. (2R speech 14/8/17)
NSWCCL has not yet closely analysed the Wilkie Bill. But it is clearly a positive that it has been introduced and allowed a second reading speech.
In the normal course of events, it would be highly unlikely that this Bill would progress much further, and it would have no chance of being passed by the current House of Representative. However, these are not normal times in our Parliament. Independent MPs in the lower house may have more influence than previously if the current dual citizenship crisis is not quickly resolved – or if its resolution leads to a loss of majority for the Turnbull Government.
On this front we can only wait and see.
On a broader front, there is growing unease within the community and the legal profession about the avalanche of legislation hostile to civil liberties and human rights. In that context, it is noteworthy that Professor George Williams and Daniel Reynolds are soon launching the 4th edition of their book arguing the imperative and increasingly urgent case for a bill of rights in Australia - A Charter of Rights for Australia. It is also noteworthy that Michael Kirby will join them in conversation at the launch in Sydney. Michael Kirby and George Williams are among those who have never stopped arguing the case for a national bill of rights and its imperative, not just for the protection of individual rights and liberties, but also for the preservation of a robust liberal democracy in Australia.
Hopefully these are manifestations of a re-energised national campaign to achieve a long overdue and desperately needed human rights bill for Australia.
Dr Lesley Lynch