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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17569

Mr McCLELLAND (9:40 AM) —In 1994 the federal government tabled Australia's national action plan on human rights at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. National action plans were a recommendation of the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, having been suggested by the Australian government as a means by which countries could in a practical way improve their observance of human rights standards. Australia's plan was a clear statement of the steps being taken to promote and protect the human rights of Australian citizens. It was intended that the plan be comprehensively revised every five years.

Over time, Australia has encouraged other countries to develop plans, particularly in our neighbourhood of the Asia-Pacific region. In 1998, Indonesia published its plan, which was a welcome achievement. Also in 1998, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Attorney-General both announced that Australia would comprehensively revise our own plan. A working group was established and an extensive process of consultation was promised. That was almost five years ago. Since then, Australians have seen and heard absolutely nothing. As of last month, the working group had not met for almost a year, and the revised document had not even been considered by the Attorney-General, let alone forwarded to the stakeholders for consultation. Quite clearly, the national action plan has become a national inaction plan. We have heard no explanation from the Attorney-General or the foreign minister for their extraordinary delay.

Anyone familiar with the Howard government's human rights record would understand that they are having some difficulty scraping together their human rights achievements. Perhaps it would assist if I recalled a few. In the last few years, for example, the Howard government has voted against the UN protocol against torture; continued to deny Australian women the benefit of the UN protocol for the elimination of discrimination against women; and introduced legislation to weaken Australia's national human rights body, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, and to sack its specialist commissioners. I suspect that if the government is honest the national action plan, when it finally appears, will read something like a confession.

Naturally the government's failure to produce a revised plan weakens Australia's argument that other countries should develop their own. More importantly, it means there is no clear and contemporary statement of human rights standards that Australians can expect their own government to uphold. Australians are strong supporters of human rights, stemming from our nation's commitment to a fair go. After five years of inaction, it is time for the Attorney-General to tell the Australian people what on earth is going on about their fundamental human rights.