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Friday, 25 November 2011
Page: 9673

Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (13:30): I am pleased to speak on the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Bill 2010 and related bill. The legislation is about a forum for greater parliamentary scrutiny of human rights and will establish a committee that will enable the early and ongoing consideration of human rights issues in policy and legislative development.

The Labor government takes very seriously its obligation to human rights within this nation. On 21 April 2010, we launched Australia's Human Rights Framework and outlined many actions the government will take to protect and advance human rights. Personally, I support a human rights charter and I hope this is something we can look to in the future. While the framework does not include a human rights act or charter, the establishment of a new joint committee is a very significant step forward in protecting and promoting human rights in our nation.

The human rights framework is based on five key principles: reaffirming a commitment to Australia's human rights obligations; the significance of human rights education so that people can access their human rights; enhancing Australia's domestic and international engagement on human rights issues; improving human rights protections, including greater parliamentary scrutiny; and achieving greater respect for human rights principles within the community.

Australians have a proud record on human rights—but it is a record that can and must be improved. We should recognise that not all people have the full enjoyment of the human rights that should be afforded to them. To advance human rights both here and abroad Australia is committed to a human rights framework. While the human rights of Australians are in part protected by the three principal sources of our law—our Constitution, the common law and the statutes of both Commonwealth and state parliaments—Mr Nicholas Cowdery AM, QC of the Law Council of Australia says:

Australia is the only Western democracy without an effective federal constitutional statutory mech­anism to provide comprehensive parliamentary scrutiny of new and existing laws for compliance with human rights. The mechanisms proposed in these bills are, in our submission, an important step towards addressing this gap.

Similarly, the Australian Human Rights Commission submitted that, in its view, the new joint committee 'will form an important mechanism at the parliamentary level to ensure that the human rights impact of legislation and delegated instruments [is] fully considered as part of the policy development process'.

As someone who has been a participant in the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills and indeed the inquiry carried out by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Com­mittee, I do believe that the bill before us, in terms of access to international human rights instruments and debating human rights as opposed to just relying on the common law and law, is a great step forward.

In addition to this important role of examining legislation, the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade will advance participatory democracy through its ability to canvass public views and establish a dialogue between citizens and members of the committee on important human rights questions. I have been very pleased to participate in this through the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, and I do think we can look to the work of that committee when considering how we might like our human rights parliamentary committeeto work. The committee will work with reference to the rights and freedoms recognised or declared in seven core United Nations human rights treaties as they apply to Australia, and the new framework will require all bills to have a ministerial statement of human rights compatibility to ensure they comply with our international obligations. The committee will also be able to examine existing legislation and conduct broad inquiries into matters relating to human rights as referred to it by the Attorney-General. To my mind, broadly speaking, meeting human rights standards is not only an important moral imperative but a material one too. For many people in our nation failure to meet human rights standards prevents them from reaching their potential, accessing justice and making their full contribution to Australian society. This is a test of the way we treat the vulnerable in our community and of the laws that we have before our parliament. So I am pleased that this bill and the Human Rights Framework reaffirm our government's commitment to human rights and community engagement, with a particular focus on ensuring that laws are consistent with Australia's international human rights obligations. I note that the opposition senators stated in their dissenting report on this bill:

In our view, not only is it undesirable to recognize international instruments as the exclusive, or even the main, source of rights; it is fraught with danger to attempt to codify rights at all.

In contrast, the Human Rights Council of Australia said:

It is particularly pleasing that the rights to which the Parliamentary Joint Committee must have regard when performing its functions are all of the rights expressed and declared in the relevant international instruments listed in clause 3(1) of the Bill, as distinct from merely a selection of some of these rights. This will serve to remind the federal legislature that, at international law, Australia has an obligation to observe and respect all rights that are the subject of international treaties to which Australia is a party.

Coalition senators have expressed the view that a more effective way for the bill to address these issues would be for it to avoid ruling in and ruling out particular rights, leaving it to members of the committee, informed no doubt by the submissions before them, to consider what are and what are not relevant human rights.

I think that the coalition overstates its concerns. Essentially, we are talking here about a reporting process. Parliamentary committees are at liberty to make their own decisions about what they do with the information before them. It is one of the reasons I like the idea of a charter of rights. Parliamentary committees are not bound in the way a charter might bind a test of these rights. Like any other parliamentary committee, we would have the capacity to make our own decision based on information before us. Likewise, the Australian com­munity will have the opportunity to judge the decisions of the committee against what is reported against international human rights instruments.

It is appropriate to have a reference point for the committee, which will be the rights and freedoms recognised or declared by the seven core United Nations human rights treaties as they apply to Australia. Universal freedoms and human rights cannot be irrelevant one day and relevant the next. Indeed, many submissions to the committee proposed that the definition of human rights should be expanded to include a wider range of international instruments than the seven core UN conventions currently captured, in order to more accurately reflect Australia's international human rights obligations.

While some provisions of treaties may exist in our national legislation, they do not form part of Australia's domestic law unless the treaties have been specifically incorpor­ated into Australian law through legislation. I note that we are currently going through a process of combining a range of antidiscrim­ination laws. I look forward to the outcome of those reforms. This principle reflects the fact that agreeing to be bound by a treaty is the responsibility of the executive in the exercise of its prerogative power, whereas law making is the responsibility of parliament.

Finally, one of the really pleasing things about this legislation is that it establishes a dialogue between the executive, the parliament and, ultimately, the citizens of this nation on the issue of human rights in this country. It enables the active con­sideration of human rights and the seven core United Nations human rights treaties in the process of law making and in consultation with the Australian people. I commend the bill to the Senate.