Bill of rights to rein in Parliament

Sydney Morning Herald
3 December, 2008
By Cynthia Banham and Jonathan Pearlman


AUSTRALIA is a step closer to getting a bill of rights, which could enshrine rights to free speech and non-discrimination. The Federal Government is set to begin a consultation process into what the document should look like next week.

The charter would outline a set of rights and require the Parliament to ensure legislation complies with them. It is unlikely to be a US-style constitutional document - which allows courts to declare laws invalid - but will probably be based on those in Victoria, the ACT and Britain.

The Herald understands cabinet agreed on the nationwide consultation process on Monday.

The Government will use the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, next Wednesday, to call for options on a human rights charter.

The Prime Minister threw his support behind the principles enshrined in the declaration yesterday in a speech to Parliament marking the anniversary.

"As a middle power we believe in a creative use of diplomacy to build stronger human rights protection in every part of the world," Mr Rudd said.

The Australian National University's Professor Hilary Charlesworth said the bill of rights would probably include civil and political rights such as the right to free speech and to non-discrimination. What was less clear was whether economic, social and cultural rights would be included, such as the right to education, to a high standard of health care and the right to work.

"I think [the Government] will leave it open," she said.

The move is sure to attract its critics, with the Coalition having already declared its opposition to a bill of rights. The shadow attorney-general, George Brandis, has previously said a rights charter was unnecessary and unwise, and would concentrate too much power in the judiciary.

George Williams, a constitutional expert who helped to draft the Victorian charter, backed the proposal and said Australia was the only democratic nation not to have a charter of rights.

He said the Government should consult as widely as possible and avoid including potentially contentious rights, such as a right to abortion. "A charter is not about foisting new agendas on to people," said Professor Williams, of the University of NSW.

"I would not put divisive things there. I would stick to things like freedom of speech - that we know we believe in and that have overwhelming public support The process should be very open. It should not just involve legal and human rights groups. Any Australian who wants to should have a say."

Professor Williams said charters in Britain and Australia had led to almost no increases in litigation but could prevent the passing of laws that impinged on rights, such as the federal sedition laws.

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