Thursday, October 06, 2005

Launch of Campaign for Human Rights Act for Australia

Tonight I attended the launch of a campaign to pass legislation in Australia for a Human Rights Act. I have always been sympathetic to the call for a Bill of Rights or some form of Human Rights Act for Australia. We are probably the last western democracy without some form of human rights protection. It's no reflection on the current government but more that the times in which we live are a reminder that we must safeguard human rights against the potential of excess and tyranny.
When I was first elected to the City of Sydney Council I was alarmed to read that the Lord Mayor had the power conferred by Council under voted delegation to enter any office and access any file in the organisation - not specified but obviously including Councillors. I found it interesting to watch as the Town Hall bureaucrats keen to defend that Lord Mayoral authority (and by default their powers) - no doubt another Sartor legacy. I opposed the powers in numerous early meetings and in response Clover Moore initially said 'I can assure you Councilor Mallard that I have no interest in reading your files'. I responded that it was not her benevolent administration that I feared (not) but rather the potential for future abuse by power drunk bureaucracies and their tyrant masters. Moore deleted the power wholesale the following Council meeting. When it comes to civil liberties I believe it is one occasion when we should take as the base line the worst nature of ourselves. And so we have today the unfashionable call for a Human Rights Act for Australia.

The launch of the campaign by New Matilda - a left of centre on-line publication - was at the Town Hall tonight. Nine worthy speakers presented their case in support of Parliament embracing the Human Rights Act they were putting up for consultation and debate. The speakers were all very good - even Greg Combet impressed me - although I cautioned moderator and friend Susan Ryan AO not to let the trade union dig its claws in too deep if she really wanted to see this Act passed by the parliament. I was probably the only Liberal party member there since last I heard the Young Liberals had called for Malcolm Fraser to be expelled or hand back his life membership for being too liberal! I read today that the Victorian Young Liberals believe that no one left of them should be in the Liberal party. They do forget Menzies own words about why it is called the Liberal party and not the Conservative party. But I digress.

Malcolm Fraser spoke very forcefully and with his much admired passion. Susan Ryan introduced him as one of the major forces and personalities in ending apartheid. John Menadue acknowledged Malcolm for accepting 100,000 Indo-Chinese refuges as prime minister without referral to opinion polls but rather because it was right to do so. Strong applause from the Town Hall audience.

Fraser outlined his support for the Human Rights Act by starting from the point that he had always thought common law protected our basic freedoms in Australia, but that events in the last five years had proven him wrong: Events like the mandatory detention of children and the wrongful deportation of a mentally ill Australian citizen. Human Rights are not proetcted by laws or the constitution in Australia. He was most concerned about the current proposed anti-terror laws endorsed by the labor State Premiers last week and allowing the detention by the executive on the advise of ASIO for 14 days of people suspected of having some knowledge of terrorist activity. Fraser contended that with the limited access for those subject to the Orwellian detention orders to inform family or lawyers that the Federal government effectively had the power to make even Malcolm Fraser disappear. And a journalist who dared report it faced 5 years in goal. He quoted Churchill who faced a much more serious threat from Nazism than we do from terror, when he said that 'executive detention of citizens is an odious power that should be surrendered at the earliest possible occasion.'

I heard from other speakers such as the inspirational Waleed Aly, a Melbourne lawyer and member of the Islamic Council of Victorian who whilst paying respect and support to the victims of the latest Bali atrocity, made the sensitive point that after such a terrorist attack the 'discourse on human rights becomes unfashionable'. More reason to have the discourse.

The Bill's main architect associate Professor Spencer Zifcak unwrapped the draft legislation in detail. He and others explained that this was a very conservative Human Rights Act that drew its basis from the recently adopted UK Bill of Rights. It provided little opportunity for judicial activism or lawyer enrichment.
By the end of the night my conviction that it is time for Australia to adopt some form of Human Rights charter was reinforced. I approached the organiser, Susan Ryan and remind her that to succeed this campaign must be bi-partisan. I intend to ask City of Sydney Council to adopt the draft Human Rights Act for Australia and seek public comment as part of the consultation process. I also intend pursuing it within the Liberal party forums and network available to me.
After several weeks of sadness and disappointment at where politics is heading today (re John Brogden and Mark Latham events) I left tonight's event feeling re-energised.

Off to Brisbane at 635am tomorrow to present two papers at the Bicycle Federation of Australia Conference and back to blog on the weekend.

Australia is the only Western country without a national Human Rights Act. New Matilda will launch its Human Rights Act campaign in October to change this.
The Right Honourable Malcolm Fraser will be launching the Human Rights Act for Australia Campaign.
When: Wednesday 5 October 2005. Time: 6.15pm
Venue: Sydney Town Hall
Speakers include: The Right Honourable Malcolm Fraser, Professor Larissa Behrendt, Waleed Aly, Associate Professor Spencer Zifcak, Greg Combet, Nahid Karimi, Susan Ryan AO and John Menadue AO.

A Human Rights Act for Australia

Susan Ryan

An Australian Human Rights Act cannot be put off any longer.New Matilda readers are all too aware of recent erosions of our rights. The anti terrorism laws should never have been enacted without stronger protections for individuals. Shocked as we are by the sagas of despair coming out of mandatory detention, or wrongful treatment by immigration agencies of citizens and asylum seekers, these sagas continue, apparently with official sanction. Read more here.

The New Matilda Campaign, article by Nick Carney
Friday 30 September 2005
Nick Carney

In January this year, two comments were posted in response to an article in New Matilda entitled 'No Way Out: the High Court and Children in Detention'. The article was one of many that focused on the Federal Government's inhumane policy of mandatory detention for children of asylum seekers. The author, Spencer Zifcak, considered two then-recent proceedings in which the High Court of Australia had found that the 'Commonwealth Government (had) the constitutional and statutory authority to detain children mandatorily - even for years.'Zifcak, although appalled by the practice, agreed that the court's conclusions 'were clearly right.' How could this be? The highest court in the land powerless to stop the Federal Government from locking up children behind razor wire?Zifcak's answer was that Australia's Constitution affords very limited protection for human rights. Our international human rights obligations (which derive from various international covenants, to which we have been a signatory since 1966) have never been incorporated into domestic law - so they have no effect! Without constitutional or statutory protection for human rights, the Australian people must trust the parliament to make laws for the good governance of the country and have no recourse if it does not.

Myths about a Human Rights Act
Friday 16 September 2005

A Human Rights Act would erode parliamentary sovereignty
Parliamentary sovereignty refers to the fundamental power of the parliament to make laws for the governance of Australia. New Matilda recognises the importance of parliamentary sovereignty. That is why it is proposing a statutory rather than constitutional model for the protection of rights. The statutory model encourages rights protection through dialogue between the courts and parliament without taking power away from the parliament. The courts will be able to declare that laws are incompatible with human rights but the final decision on what to do about the incompatibility will remain with the government and the parliament.
A Human Rights Act only protects terrorists, criminals and refugees
A Human Rights Act would protect the rights of all people within Australia. Read more here.

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