Do We Take Our Rights For Granted?
Many of us tend to make assumptions about human rights. As Australians brought up in a wealthy western democracy, we expect our rights to be protected.
Human rights are essentially the fundamental freedoms that all Australians should have, regardless of nationality, race, colour, religion, sex etc. They include things like education, justice, health, housing, social security, privacy, freedom of thought and speech.
But do human rights in fact protect us?
This is the question at the centre of the current debate about whether Australia needs a formalised Bill of Rights. Human Rights groups believe we do. Australia is the only western democracy without one.
A recent survey conducted by Frank Brennans committee, set up to address whether Australia needs a federal human rights act, found that most Australians dont actually know what protections exist.
What we in fact have is a tacit understanding, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), that there are some things that are fair, and some that are not. Some human rights are supported through various pieces of legislation, such as federal and state anti-discrimination laws, but many are not.
Parliament doesnt actually have to consider human rights when they create laws. Think of the breach of individual freedoms in relation to lengthy detention periods for asylum seekers, and extended periods of detention for terrorism suspects.
While we do have the Australian Human Rights Commission, it doesnt have the power to force the government to take its advice. Australia is party to many agreements about international rights, so there are bodies that can put political pressure on the government to make changes. But again, they cant enforce them.
The bill would essentially give judges the power to send laws back to be redrafted if they didnt comply with human rights. So those in favour of the bill see it as a way of forcing the government to consider human rights when making policy decisions. They believe that formal legislation would better protect the disadvantaged members of the community, helping Australia towards a better model of social justice.
Those against the bill argue that it would create unnecessary legislation that slows down decision-making, costs a lot of money, and gives greedy lawyers a new opportunity to make money. This seems unlikely, given that the members of the community who have had their rights breached are generally the disadvantaged. Most human rights work is done free of charge.
The government has yet to comment on the findings of Brennans committee. One thing seems clear; there is a need for education. The Australian public might show more interest in the debate if they knew their rights werent being protected as adequately as they thought.