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Free and equal: An Australian conversation on human rights inquiry

5 December 2019


The Law Council has prepared a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (the AHRC’s) Free and equal: An Australian conversation on human rights inquiry. The submission is a synthesis of the work of many of the Law Council’s specialist Sections, working groups, and advisory committees, and stands as an important statement of the Law Council’s position in 2019 on a broad range of human rights issues in Australia.

On 14 December 2018, AHRC President, Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM, announced the Free and Equal Inquiry as a major project. It aims to identify the key principles of an effective system of human rights protection for Australia. Law Council President, Arthur Moses SC, recently met with Professor Croucher to discuss the Law Council’s commitment to this Inquiry.

In its submission, the Law Council welcomes the opportunity to engage with this comprehensive approach to reviewing Australia’s legal and policy framework for respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights.

Australia continues to face pressing challenges in rights implementation for diverse vulnerable groups within society, which have formed ongoing topics of Royal Commissions and other national inquiries. These groups include people with disability, older people, Indigenous peoples, women experiencing violence, LGBTI+ groups, asylum seekers and children. These ongoing challenges demonstrate that current rights protection regimes are inadequate, and that this is an unfinished national conversation. A policy shift is required from a response which is too frequently crisis-driven, to a more positive, preventative framework of human rights protection.

The timing of the AHRC’s Inquiry is particularly significant. Australia currently holds a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council and as such should be at the forefront of protecting human rights both at a domestic and international level.

The Law Council’s central recommendation in this submission concerns the adoption of a federal human rights act. Australia is currently the only Western democracy lacking a constitutional or statutory charter of rights. The Law Council considers that the development of a federal human rights charter would underpin a more preventative approach to human rights protections for Australians.

In addition to a human rights act, the submission sets out a number of mechanisms to promote and uphold human rights in Australia. This includes:

a. expanded human rights education and awareness programs, with particular emphasis on primary, secondary and tertiary education, and building a strong human rights culture across government and parliament;

b. measures to ensure that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights can play a stronger role in the scrutiny of human rights by Federal Parliament;

c. establishing a comprehensive, consolidated federal anti-discrimination legislation regime, provided that this preserves and strengthens existing protections;

d. continuing to respect and pursue the calls in the Uluru Statement, including for a Constitutionally-enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament; and

e. exploring how the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples may be effectively implemented in Australia.

A further Law Council submission as part of the Free and Equal Inquiry focusing on priorities for federal discrimination law reform will be available soon. The Law Council will continue to engage with the Inquiry in 2020 and to advocate strongly for a federal human rights act.

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