Law Council revives calls for a federal human rights act

Law Council of Australia president Pauline Wright has used a National Press Club address to renew calls for the federal government to adopt a human rights act, partly in response to the restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nov 18, 2020, updated Nov 18, 2020
Law Council president Pauline Wright has revived calls for the Federal Government to introduce a human rights act.

Law Council president Pauline Wright has revived calls for the Federal Government to introduce a human rights act.

Australian lawyers believe the pandemic and the recent spate of royal commissions demonstrate the urgent need for a charter of human rights.

The Law Council is renewing calls for national protections to prevent abuses from happening.

Law council president Pauline Wright says coronavirus lockdowns, travel restrictions, tracing applications and mandatory quarantine have all raised human rights issues.

Quarantine rules have interfered with international rights, including those relating to freedom of movement and protection from arbitrary detention.

But the mandatory isolation periods have also been designed to preserve the right to health and life.

Wright said the pandemic illustrated the need to better understand conflicting rights and resolve tensions that might arise.

“We do need to remain vigilant to ensure that measures taken in crisis do not endure beyond the tail of the crisis,” she told the National Press Club in Canberra.

“We do need the tools to guard against overreach.”

Wright also pointed to royal commissions into the abuse and neglect of disabled people, the safety and quality of aged care, and the detention of children in the Northern Territory.

“Each of these royal commissions, while welcome and necessary, has been reactive, crisis-driven and highly resource intensive,” Wright said.

“Further, as we all know, the recommendations of royal commissions are not always implemented fully, or even to a substantial degree.”

Wright also raised the criminal prosecutions of two whistleblowers, police raids on journalists and media organisations, and the privacy implications of national security and surveillance laws.

Australia is the only western democracy without some form of a charter of rights at a national level, whether legislated by parliament or enshrined in the constitution.

For more than a decade the law council has pushed for a constitutional model, but is now promoting a legislative model as a first step.

“The policy put forward today is a pragmatic acceptance that a federal human rights act is the most feasible way forward in the first instance,” she said.

“The statutory model allays some fears about entrenched bills of rights – unchangeable and in the hands of unelected judges, as opposed to elected representatives – making it clear that elected legislators have the last say on broad policy issues.”

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