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Tuesday, 28 September 1993
Page: 1311


Senator HARRADINE (8.48 p.m.) —The Senate is considering the following motion:

(1) That the Senate:

  (a) recognises:

    (i) that everyone should have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and

   (ii)that it is essential to promote understanding, tolerance and respect in matters relating to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and

  (b) notes that:

    (i) on 8 February 1993 the Attorney-General declared under subsection 47(1) of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986 that the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 25 November 1981 . . . is an international instrument relating to human rights and freedoms for the purpose of that Act, and

   (ii) it is desirable that there be appropriate opportunities for public consideration and parliamentary debate of the Declaration.

(2) That the declaration by the Attorney-General, dated 8 February 1993, of the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, made under subsection 47(1) of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986, be disallowed.

I read the motion out because I think that senators ought to realise what they are going to vote upon. I have listened to the arguments that have been advanced against the motion. I have not found them convincing, nor do they really address the motion.

  Surely we all believe that everyone should have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion? They are the most fundamental of human rights. I am not suggesting for a moment that those people who initiated debate in this area as far back as 1960 or 1961 believed other than that the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion were the most fundamental of human rights. I am sure that they believed that these were fundamental human rights and that action by the United Nations would advance and promote these fundamental human rights. We have to realise that these freedoms are the inherent right of every human being. Why? It is because human beings are created by God and the relationship between human beings and the creator is the most fundamental of all. Therefore, we obviously all agree that this is the most fundamental of human rights.

  It is most important that this right not be misinterpreted by a non-elected organisation. I do not suggest for one moment that an elected organisation is the repository for a perfect interpretation of such instruments. Far less do I agree with what is regarded by authoritarian regimes such as the PRC to be human rights—that is, those rights that are determined by law in that country. These human rights are inherent, universal and inalienable. They cannot be taken away by states or by human rights and equal opportunity commissions and they cannot be given away by the bearers of those rights. Those rights are needed to ensure the full flourishing of the humanity of each individual who bears those rights.

  I do not suggest for one moment that the persons who formulated this declaration were ill-intentioned; on the contrary. However, as I see it, there are problems with this declaration. It appears to attempt to qualify the provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was agreed upon by the United Nations in 1948. It appears to qualify provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I believe it is a bit like what happened in Vienna in June of this year when a 28-page document on human rights qualified, in my view, very substantially the very simple six page Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted in 1948. Certain provisions of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief are vague and open to the possibility of misin-terpretation. That is the key to the problem. The motion moved by Senator Vanstone calls for a public debate on this declaration before it becomes an attachment to legislation.

  I realise that once the declaration becomes an attachment to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act it will bind only the Commonwealth and Commonwealth agencies. However, it will be there and it will be able to be interpreted by the commission in a manner that may be quite contrary to what an individual reading of the declaration might otherwise suggest. It has happened before. Tomorrow, when we come to deal with the rights of the child convention, I will give the Senate an example of where a misinterpretation of the provisions has led to actions by the international monitoring committee which I believe are quite contrary to the intentions of the drafters of that declaration.

  I believe that the onus is on the government. Why the rush? Why did the Attorney-General sign the instrument which meant that this declaration would be part of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act one day after the election was called?


Senator Calvert —It was brought here on 8 May with a whole heap of other stuff.


Senator HARRADINE —As Senator Calvert indicated, it was brought in here on 8 May with a considerable number of other instruments.

  I remind the Senate that I have had a notice of motion on the Notice Paper for some considerable time. It appears on page 9 of the Notice Paper of 17 August. It states:

That a standing committee of the Senate . . . be appointed to consider all treaties laid before the Senate, and any other treaties to which the committee may have access, and to report in respect of each such treaty: (i) whether Australia should undertake to be bound by that treaty if that treaty is not already binding upon Australia, and (ii) the effect which Australia's being bound by that treaty has or would have upon the legislative powers and responsibilities of the Australian States—

The definition of `treaty', which is included, states:

. . . means any agreement or proposed agreement in writing between 2 or more countries which imposes or would impose rights and obligations upon those countries and which is or is intended to be binding upon those countries—

I acknowledge that the declaration that we are considering now is not a treaty, but it is presumably the precursor of a convention down the track. I think it is important under those circumstances to give proper consideration to this matter. If my motion were adopted, I believe that a standing committee of the Senate would be capable of receiving advice and submissions from a whole range of people. That would be the civilised and proper way to go about this matter.

  There is a considerable amount of confusion in the minds of the public on this matter. People who have come to Australia from authoritarian or communist countries are concerned. They have memories of their own countries which had beautiful constitutions enshrining freedom of religion. One example of this is the former USSR. But, of course, the interpretation by the state of those provisions left very much to be desired.

  I am not suggesting at all that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission will, in fact, interpret the declaration in such a way as to give it a meaning which is not immediately obvious. What I am saying is, why the rush? Why does not the government allow a full and free debate on this question, as is envisaged in the motion which is before us?  Why not adopt this motion which will enable community debate and discussion to take place? I would like to see submissions from people as to how they think the declaration will be interpreted. I would also like to hear from the government as to how it thinks it ought to be interpreted, because it must have some views on the matter.

  I have seen the correspondence between Mr Hannaford and the Attorney-General, and I am not convinced that Mr Hannaford does not have a point. I think he may well have a point. If that is the case, then we should have that matter clarified. Mr Hannaford happens to be the Attorney-General of the biggest state in Australia. I assume that he has had advice on this matter. If that is the case and there is any doubt about it, let us proceed in the manner that is suggested by this motion.

  Let me make it perfectly clear that I believe, and I am sure the original framers of this declaration in 1962 believed, that religious freedom is the most fundamental of all freedoms. But because people have various views about the interpretation of this declaration, we must be absolutely certain that we preserve that freedom.

  Not one person from the government has suggested that this declaration is necessary so far as Australia is concerned. It certainly is necessary so far as some other countries are concerned, but it does not appear to me at least to be necessary for Australia. For the declaration to be now made part of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and for the commission to include it in its educative process will require some sort of interpretation by the commission of the articles of the declaration. I believe that we should act with caution on this most fundamental matter. Therefore, I will support the motion that was originally put forward by Senator Calvert and the opposition.