Australia remains the only liberal democracy globally without rights protections enshrined in federal law. Indeed, until not so long ago, no bill of rights or Human Rights Act (HRA) existed at any level of government: that was until the often-pioneering ACT Legislative Assembly passed one in 2002.
And while the stalemate has continued at the federal level, other states have followed the ACT’s lead, with Victoria enacting a charter of rights in 2004 and Queensland passing its Human Rights Act in 2019, which still leaves the people of NSW unprotected at all levels.
But this looks likely to change, as members of the 40-odd NSW legal and civil society organisations, including NSW Council for Civil Liberties, running the Human Rights Act for NSW campaign (HRA4NSW) hosted a recent event that saw the NSW attorney general Michael Daley confirm he is open to enacting one.
“The NSW Council for Civil Liberties fundamentally supports enhanced and enforceable protections for human rights in Australia,” said Josh Pallas, president of the NSWCCL. “Defending freedom of speech and expression and the right to protest has always been a core pillar of the council’s work.”
“Working with other civil society organisations and advocacy groups allows us to deepen the support base and show governments of all persuasions how strong the civil society push is for human rights protections,” the lawyer told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
The HRA4NSW Alliance is co-convened by NSWCCL and Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR), and it further involves a steering committee that includes the NSW Society for Labor Lawyers. And all three organisations hosted the HRA event in July, which outlined the benefits of such protections.
“We are heartened by the genuine interest that the current NSW government has in a Human Rights Act for NSW,” Pallas continued, adding that the attendance of the state’s chief lawmaker at the event, with his asserted willingness to introduce human rights legislation, underscored this.
Pallas has been one of the most vocal critics of the antiprotest regime the now defunct Perrottet government enacted, “NSW’s antiprotest laws fall short of Australia’s international human rights obligations on any measure, as they go well beyond what is necessary and proportionate for the protection of public order,” the NSWCCL president made clear.
“The human rights treaties Australia has ratified either explicitly or implicitly require that an individual who has had their rights breached has access to effective remedies, including judicial remedies,” the lawyer said, adding that this would also apply to holding the government to account.
So, as far as Pallas is concerned, a HRA would have likely prevented the passage of these laws, whilst Weste points out that rights protections don’t halt a majority passing legislation, but they do require deliberated debate in relation to rights, which would have stopped them being rammed through.
NSWCCL has been a chief critic of the counterterrorism laws that successive governments have been passing. “It’s our hope that the same would apply to antiterror and national security laws,” Pallas continued. However, he further warned that “unfortunately human rights jurisprudence overseas has shown a far greater appetite for encroachment on civil liberties in the name of these causes”.
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