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Thursday, 21 June 2018
Page: 65


Senator MOORE (Queensland) (15:38): I move:

That the Senate take note of the annual report.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights annual report for 2016-17 covers a range of issues that, I think, bear attention of the Senate. We know that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights is one of the key committees in this parliament. It examines and reports on the human rights compatibility of all bills and legislative instruments that come before the parliament. In those Monday evening meetings in every sitting period, we can have a large number of bills and instruments in front of us that take considerable time for close scrutiny and also involve a great deal of discussion. It is a very important committee. I know a number of members in this place have served on the committee, and I hope many more will take the opportunity to read some of the reports and see some of the recommendations made by our committee on our responsibilities under the human rights legislation, to which we are party, for consideration of all legislation that comes before our parliament. It's most important that we understand that all legislation that comes before the parliament is subject to scrutiny by the human rights committee.

Australia has voluntarily accepted obligations under the seven core United Nations human rights treaties, and it's a general principle of international human rights law that the rights protected by the human rights treaty are to be interpreted generously and any limitations on human rights are to be interpreted narrowly. Accordingly, and this is important for the role of the committee, the primary focus of the committee's report is determining whether any identified limitation of a human right is justifiable. That's often where debates occur, because there is no particular statement that says that everything has to apply and that there is no human right that cannot be questioned. What the committee does consider, and the committee takes its responsibilities very seriously, is that human rights law recognises that reasonable limits may be placed on most rights and freedoms. There are very few absolute rights that cannot be limited in any circumstances, and all the other rights must be limited as long as the limitation meets certain standards. There are a number of key criteria that our committee looks at: rights need to be prescribed by law, be in pursuit of a legitimate objective, be rationally connected to the stated objective, and be a proportionate way to achieve that objective.

What I want to discuss this evening is that this annual report draws particular attention to the statements of compatibility that are prepared by ministers and ministers' offices that come to the committee for consideration. As I've said, it is the responsibility of the ministers to explain what, if any, is the impact of our compatibility on the core human rights responsibilities, and, if there could be any way that an impact on these human rights laws is being recommended in legislation, what is the reason and does it meet those criteria that I've explained.

What we have found over the period that I've been on the committee—which is this parliament and part of the last parliament—is that way too often these statements of compatibility do not fulfil the expectations of professional ministerial offices. We get basic statements of compatibility. There are very few times that we don't receive a statement from a minister's office. It happens rarely. We receive a statement that actually links the legislation to the human rights responsibilities. And then it is the responsibility of the minister's office to make a case to identify whether, in fact, there have been decisions that used the proportionality defence to say why there is a justifiable reason—a reason that the can be defended—that a particular human right may be called into question.

We are not getting the quality of responses across the board that we should expect in a system that has been operational in our parliament for a number of years. For about four parliaments now, we have had an operational Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, so it's not new. Our chair, Mr Ian Goodenough from the other place, made a statement in this year's annual report which talks about the timeliness of the reports. And this is worrying in itself, because the whole object of our committee is that we consider the human rights responsibilities before the bills or the instruments are debated in this place. Because, actually, that's the idea: that parliament knows the human rights responsibilities when we are debating the legislation. It's really helpful if we find out that bills meet our human rights requirement. More importantly, we can find out several months after the parliament has passed the legislation that it doesn't meet our requirements. The reason for that is the timeliness and the adequacy and the effectiveness of the ministerial statements.

We have on record for the last 12 months that 30 per cent of responses were on time and 68 per cent were late. Two per cent were outstanding—which means we haven't even got a response from the ministerial office. I'm not going to name the offices because that's inappropriate, but if this continues it may well be that we have to have this debate openly, because it is a requirement of the parliament that all legislation and regulations should be subject to scrutiny by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. Timeliness is very important, but what is necessary is that when the reports are received they are complete. I see Senator Reynolds across the chamber. The number of times we spend hours on a Monday evening and then have to refer questions back to the ministerial office because the arguments that are there do not effectively respond to the needs of the committee! That's just a waste of everyone's time. If we just meet a particularly difficult or sensitive point and we need more information, of course that would be standard practice. But, if it's just because it's sloppy or inadequate work, it's offensive to the minister, because the minister's name is signed on it; to the very professional secretariat of this committee, who work so hard to ensure that we have the best possible support; to the professional adviser we have; and also to the members and senators who have been appointed to this committee and who give up their time to ensure that this scrutiny is effective.

So I think it's important. The human rights committee secretariat has put out a very impressive, professional drafting statement for compatibility statements, Guidance Note 1. That's on the website and it's in the system. If you're writing a compatibility statement, if you follow these processes, you should come very close to getting it right. So we draw that to the attention of various departments so that we can justifiably take up our responsibilities in this committee.

I also want to put on notice that this afternoon I want to talk about another committee, but I'm going to run out of time. We in the human rights committee did a full and very interesting inquiry this year on 18C. I think it was a particularly effective use of the joint human rights committee to use this process, and I'll talk about that at another time. But what I want to say—and I hope that all members of the committee know it—is that, in the report of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals which our government is going to take to the UN in a couple of weeks time, there is a particular statement about the role of our Joint Standing Committee on Human Rights. It says that Australia has been a leading supporter of national human rights institutions globally. It talks about the incredibly important role of the Australian Human Rights Commission and how it promotes human rights in the wider community. It talks about our committee in parliament and says that we have this focus on human rights in our parliament. Again, it is celebrating the fact that we not only sign up to core human rights treaties internationally but take them seriously and ensure, as I've said before, that all legislation and all legislative instruments that come before the parliament are subject to human rights consideration. So I think it's very impressive. I believe it's going to be Minister Connie Fierravanti-Wells who will be taking this report to the UN. The report indicates to the international community—because certainly the SDG framework is based on respect for human rights across the world—that the Australian parliament has a committee that reports regularly. We've had the most recent report this evening, on the legislation we've looked at in the last few months, and there is also the annual report. There is also our role now on the United Nations Human Rights Council. So we not only talk about human rights but also assess our performance and live the importance of human rights. As we know, we've just had the unfortunate news about the decision of the US government to remove itself from the UN Human Rights Council. I think it's most important that countries like Australia continue to celebrate our commitment to and our absolute knowledge of and respect for human rights in our parliament.