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Important steps to better protect human rights but substantial gaps remain


Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Today’s federal government response to the National Human Rights Consultation Committee Report includes important steps to improve the understanding of human rights in Australia but has missed the opportunity to create an adequate national system of protection, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Cathy Branson QC said.

President Branson said the Commission welcomed the Government’s commitment to enhanced human rights education, to reviewing and consolidating federal discrimination laws, and to introducing processes to scrutinise new legislation for human rights compliance.

“These measures will contribute to a greater understanding and awareness of human rights in Australia and will give greater prominence to human rights in our Parliamentary processes,” Ms Branson said.

“The National Action Plan on Human Rights also announced today has the potential to drive real progress across government by measuring our success in improving rights protection in Australia over time.”

But, she said, the Commission was disappointed the Government had decided not to implement at this stage the Committee’s major recommendation for a Human Rights Act.

“The Government has missed the opportunity to provide comprehensive human rights protection for everyone in Australia through adopting a national Human Rights Act,” she said.

President Branson said the Commission urged the Government to revisit the question of a Human Rights Act as part of its review in 2014 of the Human Rights Framework. She said it would be useful for the government to provide an exposure draft of a Human Rights Act well in advance of any such review. 

“I am confident that this would demonstrate that many of the concerns raised about a Human Rights Act are not well-founded,” Ms Branson said.

She said the Commission particularly welcomed measures to assist federal Parliament to consider the impact of new laws on human rights, including through statements of compatibility for proposed legislation and the creation of a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights.

“The Commission believes that the best form of human rights protection is to prevent human rights violations from occurring in the first place. We believe that assisting Parliamentarians to consider the human rights implications of legislation before it is enacted will help prevent breaches of human rights,” she said.

“The Commission has also consistently called for a greater focus on human rights education and we look forward to working at the community level to promote understanding and respect for human rights.” 

Ms Branson said that all of these initiatives were important but would have been more effective if they had been accompanied by a Human Rights Act.

“Without a Human Rights Act, human rights protection in Australia remains piecemeal and inadequate. There remain too many instances where a person whose human rights have been breached can do nothing about it,” she said.

“We must remember that an overwhelming number of Australians from all walks of life told the national consultation committee last year that they wanted adequate protection of their rights to housing, education and health. The Government’s response does not address these concerns.”

Media contact: Louise McDermott 0419 258 597

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