Towards a National Human Rights Act?

By Phillips, Jacqueline | Impact, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Towards a National Human Rights Act?


Phillips, Jacqueline, Impact


Poverty, deprivation and homelessness are not only equity or social justice issues. They are human rights issues.

A national consultation committee is looking at the implications of a human rights act for Australia. What protections would a human rights act provide for marginalised Australians?

In Consultation: The National Human Rights Consultation Committee

It has been a very interesting year for human rights protection in Australia.

On 10 December 2008, the Australian Government announced the creation of the National Human Rights Consultation Committee, headed by Father Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest and Professor of Law.

The Committee embarked on national consultations around the country to seek the community's views on the adequacy of human rights protections in Australia.

It visited urban, rural, regional and remote areas and held some closed consultations with groups experiencing high levels of social exclusion and marginalisation.

The Committee invited public submissions and was inundated with 40,000 responses, one of the highest number of responses to a public inquiry in Australia's history. GetUp and Amnesty International played a key role in generating this overwhelming response by facilitating online submissions through their websites.

Public hearings were held at Parliament House in Canberra from 1 to 3 July 2009. A number of representatives from the community sector gave evidence including representatives of the Councils of Social Service, St Vincent de Paul, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, the National Association of Community Legal Centres and the Council on the Ageing.

The COSS network called on the Committee to recommend to the Government that human rights protections in Australia be improved, including by enactment of a national human rights act which protects economic, social and cultural rights.

Now we await the Committee's report and recommendations to Government. The deadline for reporting by the Committee has been extended by one month to 30 September 2009.

Poverty and human rights

Poverty, deprivation, housing stress and homelessness are both social justice and human rights issues.

The right to an adequate standard of living, to social security, to safe and secure housing, to health care, education and work are all protected under international human rights law.

Indeed, Australia has accepted its obligations to protect these rights by signing both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

A national human rights act would not be a panacea for all social and economic inequity. But it could produce better outcomes for low income and disadvantaged Australians through better and more accountable decisionmaking.

Litigation under a national human rights act would be a last resort. Instead, the key benefits of the act would be improved government decisionmaking and policy development and service delivery that is better adapted to meeting the needs of individuals. Indeed the most significant potential impact of a national human rights act would be the prevention of human rights infringements.

A national human rights act would require the Government to turn its mind to the impacts of any new legislation or policy on human rights. Drastic cuts to social services in times of economic boom would raise serious human rights questions which the Government would need to answer. …

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