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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 121


Senator GREIG (4:16 PM) —Before the debate on the address-in-reply to the Governor-General's speech was adjourned a little earlier today I was making the case that, significantly, the Howard government's assault on human rights, as we Democrats see it, extends well before 11 September 2001 and continues on a range of fronts unrelated to terrorism. A report by the Australia Institute last year found:

Australia's commitment to the observance of universal human rights standards, and its co-operation with the international institutions established to monitor them, has been one regrettable casualty—

of the Howard government's approach to foreign policy. But perhaps the most blatant assault on human rights was the government's proposed Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Bill, which sought to emasculate the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission by undermining its independence, minimising its expertise and removing its power to recommend the payment of compensation. I am pleased to see that this bill is not listed—as yet—amongst the upcoming bills, and I do hope that the government has had the sense to abandon that misguided and inherently regressive proposal.

The Howard government's persistent attack on human rights and the institutions that protect them has occurred in a context in which Australia is the only common law country without a bill of rights. An Australian bill of rights is desperately needed to provide protections for core human rights recognised in international treaties to which Australia is a signatory. These include equality before the law, as well as freedom of speech, religion and peaceful assembly, regardless of gender, race, age, religion, sexuality, disability or pregnancy. We Democrats have long advocated for the introduction of a bill of rights. Although we would ideally like the protection of human rights to be enshrined in the Australian Constitution, we recognise that as a first step it ought to be enacted through a statutory bill of rights.

Around 30 years ago the then Attorney-General, Lionel Murphy, attempted to introduce a bill of rights, followed by a further attempt in 1985 by then Attorney-General Gareth Evans. In 2001 we Democrats introduced our Parliamentary Charter of Rights and Freedoms Bill. Unfortunately the bill was not passed due to the complacency of the major parties. Meanwhile, the ongoing absence of a bill of rights in Australia leaves the rights of Australians exposed. The current situation is that, provided the parliament makes its intention clear, it can pass legislation which violates almost any human right, with the exception of a few rights which are implied in our Constitution. The recent decisions of the High Court in the al-Kateb and al Khafaji cases are classic examples of how the courts will interpret a clear legislative intention on the part of the parliament. In those cases the court held that the unsuccessful asylum seekers who could not be removed to another country despite their wish to leave Australia could lawfully be detained for an indefinite period of time.

In considering the introduction of an Australian bill of rights, we now have the advantage of a precedent within our own country, in the form of the recently enacted ACT Bill of Rights. The introduction of this bill has generated a good deal of interest among human rights groups and the community at large. It has also served to combat much of the scaremongering and fear campaigns in relation to a bill of rights and to increase pressure on the government to start working towards a federal—that is, national—bill of rights. In a climate where the government is constantly encroaching on long-established rights under the guise of national security, we argue that it is vital that Australia has a bill of rights to provide basic protections for all Australians.

I take this opportunity to assure all of those who are concerned about these issues that we Democrats are committed to maintaining our role, as we see it, as a protector of fundamental rights and freedoms through the Senate processes by scrutinising proposed legislation, making amendments where appropriate to address the worst aspects of that which may come forward and voting against what we find are unjustifiable grabs at power. We will continue to take the threat of terrorism seriously and will endeavour to think of new, smart, specific strategies to combat this threat. We Democrats do not accept that enacting more and more antiterrorism legislation will necessarily make Australians safer. After all, the government's original package of antiterrorism legislation was already in force when the Bali bombings occurred. That legislation failed to prevent a significant tragedy, yet, as the Senate inquiry into the bombings found, there were significant shortcomings in Australia's intelligence-gathering and travel advisory system which should have been addressed. In the interests of the safety and security of all Australians and the protection of our rights and liberties, it is vital that this chamber continue to vigorously debate proposed national security legislation in order to ensure that it is specific, targeted and, above all, effective. We Democrats will continue to play our role as active participants in that ongoing debate.