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Polly Peck
22 June, 2009  
Libs' "balanced" approach on human rights

Liberals’ uncomfortable straddle on human rights … They are for HR, as long as the Human Rights Commission advocates against a Charter of Rights


imageAs if attending the Durban 11 gabfest was not enough of an insult for all Australians, Liberal Senators Guy (Dolly) Barnett and George (Soapy) Brandis are incandescent with fury that the Australian Human Rights Commission is an advocate for a Human Rights Act.

In another instalment of the recent estimates hearings by the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, the two Liberals had more bones to pick with Catherine Branson

Branson: Yes. I accept that there are many people like you, Senator, who oppose a human rights act for Australia.

Barnett: Do you think there is merit in your commission having a more balanced approach? Can you see that there would be merit in you actually preparing both sides of the argument?

Branson: I have not noticed any absence of argument being advanced in opposition to an Australian Human Rights Act. It does not seem to me that the commission is needed to balance the argument. We are charged with protecting and promoting human rights in Australia, and it is our judgment that this would be a very positive measure.

Barnett: With the greatest respect, do you think that I have a view that is not similar to yours with respect to the importance of protecting and promoting human rights?

Branson: Not at all.

Barnett: Indeed, in my view, all those participating in the debate want that as an outcome. I would say, as has been said before, that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. We all have good intentions here, but which way are we going, which route are we going to take? I think we are all on the same page in getting good imageoutcomes in terms of human rights; it is just that I think that Australia has an exemplary record. Sure it can always be improved but, around the globe, I think it is a good record. Nevertheless, we have a taxpayer funded entity, as in your commission, promoting just one side of the coin. Frankly, I feel that is unbalanced and unfair.

Chair: Senator Barnett, do you have a question; rather than a lecture?

Barnett [pic]: I am asking for a response from Ms Branson.

Chair: The Human Rights Commission has been pretty much lectured at for nearly three-and-a-half hours hours now, so I am wondering if you have a question.

Barnett: Chair, with the greatest respect, it is nearly 12.30 and I think that interjection from you was uncalled for.

Chair: That may well be your opinion. Do you have a question, Senator Barnett?

Barnett: Ms Branson, I will ask the question again: do you think there is merit in you preparing a view that could cover both sides of the argument?

Branson: No, Senator. The judgment of the commission is that the best way to advance the protection of human rights in Australia at the moment is by the enactment of a human rights act for Australia. That is the view that we are advocating and it will be at the heart of our submission to the national consultation …

Senator Brandis: To say that the best way of doing that is through a charter is a controversial proposition among human rights advocates themselves and for the Human Rights Commission – whose statutory charter is to advance the cause of human rights – to advance particular mechanisms for human rights protection over other mechanisms of human right protection is – as Senator Barnett has suggested – not only to look at one side of the argument only but in fact a conceit.

Branson: A conceit? We have not …

Brandis: It treats without respect the views of the human rights advocates who favour other mechanisms …

Branson: I am aware, as I am sure the senators are aware, that there is a very wide range of views held by academics. Very many prominent academics and other lawyers support a human rights act for Australia. The commission regarded itself as entitled – and indeed, obliged – to make a judgment as to the appropriate course for it to take during the national consultation. We have adopted that course which we believe to be in the interests of the protection and promotion of the human rights of everyone in Australia.

Brandis: That is a political opinion.

In a submission to the National Human Rights Consultation the Opposition rejects a Charter of Rights.

Instead, it proposes that a parliamentary committee be given human rights oversight of federal legislation. For good measure there should be a “human rights audit” of Commonwealth laws – done by politicians.

That should fix everything.