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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Page: 3520

Ms VAMVAKINOU (9:01 PM) —I rise to speak on the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Bill 2010 along with the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2010. I welcome this legislation for an act to establish a parliamentary joint committee on human rights, and for related purposes, as I believe it serves to reflect the government’s commitment to implementing the legislative elements of Australia’s Human Rights Framework, which arose out of the recommendations put forward by the National Human Rights Consultation Committee. I also want to welcome the efforts of the Attorney-General, the Hon. Robert McClelland, who is in the chamber, for introducing this very important piece of legislation, which goes very much to the heart of our national judicial framework in protecting and promoting human rights in Australia.

It is not possible to speak of democracy without checks and balances. A democracy that has defining rights and duties needs to function within a human rights framework that takes into account the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of its citizens. Democracy needs oversight mechanisms to ensure that power is not abused and that accountability exists within a legislative framework, whereby policy development gives due consideration to issues of human rights. In functioning democracies it is common that there are different ideologies that shape our political persuasions. So what is it that ensures that, regardless of the make-up of the executive and regardless of the make-up of parliament, there remains a framework of rights and freedoms, a framework which in itself recognises and affirms Australians’ human rights obligations?

This involves the ratification of core United Nations human rights treaties as they apply to Australia. With this consideration in mind, it is incumbent upon us that legislation passed through this parliament is informed by, and indeed reflects, those human rights obligations as they apply to us. It ensures that rights and freedoms are beyond political expediency, that the rule of law and principles of justice operate within a defined framework. It is about recognising that, as Professor of International Relations at Adelaide’s Flinders University, Anthony J. Langlois, puts it:

… human rights amount to little more than charity if they are not functioning in a democratic framework …

That is why it is import to ensure that measures are put forward so that there is an early and ongoing consideration of human rights issues during the parliamentary process of policy and legislative development.

During the 42nd Parliament I was a member of the Human Rights Subcommittee, which operates under the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. In the subcommittee’s inquiry into human rights mechanisms and the Asia-Pacific, the Human Rights Law Resource Centre put forward the opinion that, while parliamentarians were ‘essential actors’ in the protection and promotion of human rights, in Australia:

… there are currently no formal domestic mechanisms to ensure comprehensive parliamentary scrutiny of human rights, including by independently monitoring and reporting on the implementation of the recommendations of UN treaty bodies or Special Procedures.

That is why I especially welcome this bill, because it is through the establishment of a parliamentary joint committee on human rights that parliamentary scrutiny can be enhanced.

Of particular importance is the reference point for the committee, which will be centred on the rights and freedoms recognised or declared by the seven core United Nations human rights treaties as they apply to Australia. It is worth mentioning those treaties. They are: the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. They are very important oversight mechanisms which will serve to promote and protect human rights standards. They are guiding treaties for Australia to fulfil its international obligations. Treaties such as these have allowed for the introduction of very important pieces of legislation which have gone very much to the heart of our national judicial framework.

When the federal government introduced the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Torture Prohibition and Death Penalty Abolition) Bill 2009, along with amendments to the Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973, torture was enacted as a specific Commonwealth offence in the Commonwealth Criminal Code. That fulfilled Australia’s obligations under the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment as well as highlighted Australia’s commitment to its obligations under the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

This demonstrates that these treaties will serve as the reference point for the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights as it examines acts, bills and legislative instruments for compatibility with human rights and inquires into and reports to parliament on human rights matters referred to it by the Attorney-General.

While the bills before us serve to implement the legislative elements of Australia’s Human Rights Framework, it is also important to reflect on what the framework means in action. It is about reaffirming our commitment to promoting and respecting human rights in Australia. It is about education and information on human rights and responsibilities throughout the community. It is about engagement with the international community on issues of human rights both at home, in our region and across the globe. Ultimately, it is about ensuring accountability and transparency in the process associated with parliamentary scrutiny.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises that ‘the inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. So how do we apply this fundamental principle in examining bills for acts and legislative instruments? What are some of the considerable issues facing Australia that we need to ensure that our approach is compatible with human rights? Of course, there is the issue of fundamental rights of the Indigenous people of Australia. Addressing the gaps in health, education, employment and housing all need to occur within a human rights framework.

For Australia’s Indigenous community, recognition within the Constitution is a human rights issue. Of great importance during this parliamentary term will be proposals put forward to amend the Constitution to recognise our first Australians. It is about recognising the struggle and the enormous sacrifices that so many members of Australia’s Indigenous community have made and continue to make in their efforts towards reconciliation and justice. As I have previously stated, targets associated with the Closing the gap report, investment in housing, health, early childhood, economic participation and remote service delivery will help ensure that Indigenous communities across Australia benefit from the government’s agenda. This agenda will see the advancement of the plight of Indigenous Australians strengthened by the establishment of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. It is about ensuring that we continue to move forward in our nation’s long journey towards reconciliation and about ensuring that Australia’s founding charter embodies the spirit in which the path of reconciliation is being shaped by Australia’s ongoing commitment to human rights and freedoms.

I will conclude by quoting a part of the preamble of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It may appear obvious; but, because it is sometimes all too obvious and, hence, often taken for granted, there is a need to place a special emphasis on it. It says:

… recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

It is in this spirit and with this in mind that our laws need to be enshrined and that I welcome the government’s human rights agenda. I commend these important bills to the House.