Human rights charter in Australia long overdue, says ANU Law scholar

Parliament House
Australia prides itself on its commitment and ongoing support for human rights internationally, but how well does it protect human rights on a national level?

What Sir Ronald Wilson used to describe as a need for a ‘culture of human rights’ in Australia is long overdue on a national sphere.

Associate Professor Liz Curran of The Australian National University (ANU) School of Legal Practice has made a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) project, “Free and Equal: An Australian conversation on human rights”. The project aims to facilitate a “national conversation” to identify what makes an effective system of human rights protection for 21st century Australia.

In her submission, Dr Curran draws on her empirical research and experience as a legal practitioner to conclude:The obfuscation in Australia, with thwarted attempts since the 1980s to introduce a legislative or enshrined protection human rights framework, is doing our nation a huge disservice. What Sir Ronald Wilson used to describe as a need for a ‘culture of human rights’ in Australia is long overdue on a national sphere so that we can improve levels of respect for each other, reduce division, and reverse the alienation an increasing number of the public feel from remote decision-makers.”

Dr Curran, a domestic human rights expert, has made submissions to various forums over the past three decades calling for improvement to Australia’s human rights frameworks. In her latest submission to the AHRC, she notes that while many politicians do not see a need for better protection of human rights, the lived experience for people without their privilege is that human rights intrusions are commonplace.

This is especially the case if you are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, for whom the “daily grind of racial prejudice forms a normal part of lived experience”, she writes. Other marginalised groups who would benefit from stronger human rights protection include low-income Australians, the elderly, children in out-of-home care, those living with disability, and refugees.

“Royal Commissions can shed light and tell the story of harm, poor regulatory environments, lack of oversight and enforcement, but little changes after these stories have been told. This all leads me to conclude that human rights protection in Australia, where there is a lack of legislative frameworks such as the one a charter would provide, is long overdue,” Dr Curran said.

Dr Curran noted in her submission that she had gathered empirical evidence that exposes poor human rights adherence and protections. As a legal practitioner with three decades of experience, she said she had witnessed “the travesty of the shortcoming of human rights protection both in my work for Legal Aid, community legal centres, and pro bono”.

“I also ran the National Human Rights Register for four years when I was at the helm of a human rights NGO, which recorded positive and negative developments in human rights across our nation,” she wrote.

Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and the Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT) have presented an opportunity for community members, whose rights are so often governed and controlled by government bureaucracies, to have real opportunities to benefit enabling them to better negotiate and mediate for improved treatment by agencies, Dr Curran noted.

She cited recent examples of where Commonwealth government agencies control many lives in terms of housing, health, human services, and income support, with the recent “robo-debt” ordeal exemplifying harm caused by “blunt policy”, she wrote.

Examples of successes in the United Kingdom highlight the vital role of training and community advocacy. Strong local advocacy and support on the ground linked to and, where appropriate, located in neglected communities can assist in identifying and responding to inappropriate conduct or practices related to human rights, Dr Curran argued.

Other priorities include educating and empowering people to negotiate better outcomes and treatment, as well as identifying abuses and responding proactively to them, she added.

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Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team