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Monday, 25 June 2012
Page: 4302


Senator MASON (Queensland) (10:45): Senator Singh is right: the Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (National Children’s Commissioner) Bill 2012 is an important bill. It is very important that members of the coalition talk about human rights. We—the Liberal Party and the National Party—are the trustees of the liberal democratic heritage. In the end, it was liberals and conservatives who invented human rights. Human rights might be a new infatuation of the bourgeois left, but in the 17th century it was liberals and conservatives that invented them. It is true that since World War II the bourgeois left has spoken a lot about economic and social rights. But it was liberals and conservatives who invented civil and political rights in the 17th century. They did so because we recognised—and this lot still do not—that the greatest threat to human rights is the state and government.

We continue to recognise, while the left never quite have, that the greatest threats in the world today to individuals in the end are the government, the military and the state. This lot have never quite realised that. I would have thought that after the bloodbath that was the 20th century we all would have recognised that one thing: that the greatest threat in the world today to human rights is the state. I never appreciate anyone from the bourgeois left trying to tell a conservative or a liberal about human rights. We invented them. We have some particular heritage when it comes to human rights.

I accept, however—and I suspect that the shadow Attorney-General agrees with me—that sometimes the Liberal Party, at least, has not spoken enough about human rights. At times we have run away from the field, and we should not have. We should have spoken more about what we invented and the importance of human rights because in the end, when it comes to criminal procedure and the rights against the state, we invented them. I agree with Senator Singh that perhaps in recent times the Liberal Party and indeed the coalition should have spoken more about them and we should have been far more aggressive in our advocacy of human rights in certain contexts. You can take this from me: the days when the Liberal Party were embarrassed—if they ever were—by human rights are well and truly over. We invented them and we intend to talk about them.

If human rights are important, they are particularly important for the most vulnerable people in our society, our children. As Senator Brandis outlined before, the Australian Human Rights Commission currently has six commissioners with particular responsibility for age discrimination, disability discrimination, race discrimination, sex discrimination, Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander affairs and social justice. This bill would establish another commissioner specifically to promote children's issues.

On the face of it, you might ask: 'What is wrong with that? What is wrong with another commissioner to address the rights of the most vulnerable in our community, our children?' On the face of it, you would think that is a pretty good idea. The coalition opposes the establishment of a children's commissioner because it does not believe that its establishment will assist in any material sense the protection or the promotion of the rights of children. We think that there are abundant protections elsewhere. That is the problem.

The issues addressed by a children's commissioner would be quite different to the issues addressed by other specialist commissioners, whether the issue be race or sex discrimination. Those issues are administered by Commonwealth legislation reflecting landmark United Nations treaties of the 1970s, the signing of which I remember very well. It is true that issues such as sex discrimination, race discrimination and discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders quite rightly have come to dominate any federal human rights context. The question is whether the rights of the child are more appropriately protected through federal legislation or better protected and advocated for elsewhere. I have no doubt that legislation reflecting those landmark human rights treaties on sex and race discrimination should be reflected in Commonwealth legislation. The question for the Senate is whether the rights of children should be so reflected.

The rights of a child in this country, given that we are a federation, are addressed largely by state commissioners and state guardians. They have been since federation. I know that the Coalition members of the House of Representatives committee wrote a dissenting report in which they recommended opposition to the bill, concluding:

… the AHRC, in cooperation with the relevant state and territory commissioners and guardians, already adequately perform the functions envisaged for the new Commissioner.

In other words, the rights of children and their protection are already adequately guaranteed by state and territory guardians and commissioners. The Commonwealth's role, other than through the Family Law Act, is largely one of advocacy. As I understand it, the Commonwealth commissioner in this case will have no case load. Rather, its role will be one of research and some advocacy. And that is important; I am not saying it is irrelevant. But, of course, it is a matter of whether it is appropriate and whether it adds anything. There is plenty of other research by the federal government that is going on—in family law and other contexts—that that looks at children and children's rights.

In the end it comes to this: in human rights protection there is a lot of grandstanding. Often people make great landmark statements, and there is a lot of—how do I put this?—cheap symbolism. But I have learnt, as someone who worked for the United Nations, indeed in the human rights context, many years ago—about 20 years ago—that in the end the protection of human rights is far more about action on the ground, coordination and those simple things than about grand statements and cheap symbolism. Any insinuation that the coalition is somehow cheap or does not care about children's rights is, of course, rubbish. The question for the Senate really is: will it make any difference? My sense is that it will not, and that is why we are opposing it. The history of liberal democrats in the area of human rights in the last 500 years is unparalleled. This side says no to human rights protections only when we think it will not work, that it is symbolic and that it is not worth it—and for that reason we oppose this bill.