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Monday, 14 August 2017
Page: 8211


Mr WILKIE (Denison) (10:29): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill would enshrine a bill of rights in Australian law. It is modelled very closely on the Australian Bill of Rights Bill 2001, introduced by the then member for Calwell, and would give effect to a number of international agreements to which Australia is a signatory, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In essence the bill would render invalid any Commonwealth, state or territory law that is inconsistent with the bill of rights to the extent of that inconsistency. It would also specify that Commonwealth, state and territory laws should be interpreted so as to be consistent with the bill of rights.

The bill also allows the Australian Human Rights Commission to inquire into any act or practice, done by the Commonwealth or a state or territory government, that may infringe a right or freedom in the bill of rights. It also allows for people to make complaints to the commission if they feel that an act or practice infringes a right or freedom in this bill of rights.

This bill is necessary. It's necessary because:

believe it or not, Australia the only democratic country in the world without a bill of rights. Australia is the only democratic nation without any sort of bill of rights or charter of rights, or call it what you will.

Indeed, human rights are not addressed in the Constitution, and I suggest it would be too hard anyway to amend the Constitution in a way that would effectively protect human rights.

Moreover, what domestic legislation there already is is simply way too narrow. In fact, there are only five relevant acts: the Human Rights Commission Act 1986, which is about regulating the commission, and then there's the Age Discrimination Act 2004, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and then the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. In other words, we only have legislation in place in this country to do with age, disability, race or sex, and no other aspects are covered in legislation.

In addition, I regret to say that I think the parliamentary processes in regard to human rights are, frankly, lame. For example, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights is especially lame. The committees of the House of Representatives are invariably beholden to the government, because of the numbers, and Senate committees are normally ignored by the government, because they're normally not controlled by the government.

Also, international agreements and obligations that we might have thought would give some protection to Australians are routinely ignored.

This bill is also timely because in recent times there has been an alarming increase in the power of government in Australia, at the expense of the rights of the individual:

If I can just quote from The Australian Financial Review last Friday, in an article by Professor George Williams and also Daniel Reynolds, they note:

Last year, the Chief Justice of New South Wales found 52 laws in that state alone that impinge on the presumption of innocence. In February this year, the Institute of Public Affairs identified 307 laws that infringe just four rights: the rights of presumption of innocence, natural justice, the right to silence and the privilege against self-incrimination. And another recent study found 350 current laws that infringe democratic rights such as freedom of speech—

in other words, an abundance of evidence that there has been an alarming increase in the power of government in Australia at the expense of the rights of the individual.

Moreover, we're seeing increasingly that, even when parliament might have had a role, the parliament is being increasing bypassed in this country, and it's timely that only last Friday I was in the High Court of Australia as part of an action making the point that the parliament—or, more correctly, the government—is seeking to exceed its powers by the conduct of a non-binding voluntary postal vote on marriage equality. We had the scene of the foreign minister this morning, I think it was on Sky News, making the point again that the executive had no intention of consulting the parliament over any decision to commit troops to any conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

This bill is also timely because of the plummeting threshold for criminality in this country—particularly in and amongst all the terror laws that have been passed by this parliament the threshold for criminality has reached ludicrously low levels. The bill is also timely because we're seeing in this country increasing secrecy, indefinite imprisonment without charge, the denial of full access to the judicial system, and the ignorance of international agreements as evidenced by the government's response to some asylum seekers. We have also seen in this country the rollout of a surveillance system covering virtually all adults in Australia through the mandatory metadata retention regime. We are seeing the bullying of independent safeguards, in particular the bullying of the Human Rights Commissioner and of the ABC, and the defunding of the ABC. We are seeing the misuse of security agencies, like Border Force's attempt to patrol the streets of Melbourne to check people's papers and the inclusion of the AFP logo on Centrelink letters.

This bill will not transfer sovereignty to the courts. Rather, it makes it more likely that human rights will be considered effectively when laws are made. It will provide a benchmark for the review and improvement of our laws. To again quote Professor George Williams, this time referring to the experience of the UK after the enactment of their Human Rights Act, the impact of the United Kingdom law is monitored by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has found that the act has not produced a significant increase in litigation or created any 'litigation culture' of rights protection. Where it has been applied in the courts, the Human Rights Act has proved useful in balancing issues like the need to fight terrorism with the democratic principles required for a free society. Indeed, the British department found in its April-June 2001 report that in local and magistrates courts, only a small fraction of the overall caseload involved human rights issues. The figure of 0.01 per cent of cases was given for one county court.

I want to give some time to the honourable member for Indi, who is generously seconding this bill, to offer a few comments, so I will allow her to use my remaining time.