There are plenty of reasons why we do not need a Bill of Rights. Indeed, a recent government inquiry on the issue received heaps of submissions from people warning about the dangers of a Bill of Rights (BoR). I was one of those to put in such a submission.
Yet the body looking into this affair, the National Human Rights Consultation Committee (NHRCC), seems to think it is a pretty good idea. It has released a report today recommending that a BoR gets the green light. This of course comes as no surprise. There are already plenty of activist bodies around, and this is just one of them.
One of the reasons a BoR will be a bad idea is the power it will give to unelected, unrepresentative bureaucrats and judges to push activist agendas. Indeed, an article in today’s Australian began with these alarming words: “A push to introduce a charter of human rights in Australia is set to reignite the gay marriage debate with predictions the High Court judges would be empowered to rule on the issue.”
It continued, “The report suggests human rights that should be enshrined in law include a right to marry, which could force judges to rule on whether same sex couples can marry or adopt and a right to life, which is likely to spark debate among pro-choice and anti-abortion groups. Currently, Australian law states that marriage must be between a man and a woman. If a charter of rights was introduced that also enshrined a right to marriage, the High Court could be asked to rule on the conflict.”
Fortunately, according to the article, some groups are rightly expressing concern: “But warning such a charter would be a ‘victory for the elites’, the Opposition has warned it would simply put more power in the hands of judges, challenging the Prime Minister to immediately rule out introducing the laws without a popular vote.”
The article went on, “The Coalition said Mr Rudd must guarantee voters a national referendum on any charter of human rights and not simply introduce legislation into Parliament. Liberal frontbencher George Brandis also warned introducing human rights laws may complicate Australia’s ability to protect the nation’s borders and deter boatpeople….
“Senator Brandis said today the Government must guarantee that voters have the final say on whether Australia has a charter of rights. ‘This recommendation is the ultimate triumph of the elites. The Government should reject it. If it proposes to adopt it, it should put it to the people,’ Senator Brandis said. ‘This entire process has been driven by a small group of academics, lawyers and political activists. It lacks broadly-based support, being opposed not only by the Coalition, but by much of the Labor side of politics,’ he said.
“‘In future, it is the courts, not elected governments, which would have the final say on such issues as military conscription in wartime, the rights of trade unions, and gay marriage and adoption.’ Senator Brandis also said that the Brennan Committee’s recommendation that the protection of the charter of rights to ‘all people in Australia’, rather than Australian citizens or permanent residents (recommendation 21) could frustrate the Government’s ability to protect the nation’s borders against illegal entrants.”
However the most critical voice thus far has been that of Queensland National Senator Ron Boswell. In a scathing press release, he roundly condemned the NHRCC for moving in a direction that so many Australians disapprove of. He is worth quoting at length:
“The recommendation for a bill of rights by the National Human Rights Consultation Committee would create a paradise for lawyers and left wing activists. I find it hard to believe that a committee today would recommend the downgrading of our parliamentary democracy such that power is taken away from democratically elected representatives and put in the hands of committees, bureaucrats and judges.
“These recommendations are also impractical, costly and time consuming. The NHRCC has fallen for the rhetoric of the left and failed to appreciate the realities of governing in a world where rights compete and change. It is impossible and arrogant to come up with a definitive, lasting and equitable list of rights. Australia should be free to interpret international conventions in our own way and not undermine our sovereignty by making parliament’s decisions subject to lists set by others.
“One of the recommended responsibilities is ‘to promote peaceful means for the resolution of conflict’. Does that mean we could never go to war? Implementing a bill of rights would just add such complexity to lawmaking and encourage conflict amongst competing groups. You would tie the hands of parliament in knots.
“Hitler had a bill of rights, Zimbabwe has a bill of rights. The only way human rights are considered is where they are important and respected in society and in parliament. To a large extent we have that in Australia. It could always be improved but not through radically changing the existing structure of delivering human rights as proposed by this committee.
“This is a total give-in to the bleeding heart left wing lawyer and activist brigade and has been an incredible waste of time. Lists of rights will cause endless trouble for governments trying to make a positive difference for indigenous Australians for example. Interventions that save children in at risk communities might never happen or be fatally delayed if taken to court.”
Religious groups will be especially at risk: “Church communities will be concerned by future challenges to their ability to employ people of similar values, and the right to marry and found a family being extended to same sex couples.”
He continues, “The Committee has gone further than just calling for a bill of rights. They want to overhaul the whole of public service policy, delivery and decision making by subjecting it to lists of rights from International Covenants. This is an impossibly subjective process. How will competing rights be assessed and by whom? The committee want this formalised into a framework with a Minister at the head to report to Parliament. Every department and agency will have to develop human right action plans.
“This is effectively a huge wish list from the Australian Human Rights Commission who would become a bloated organisation with greatly expanded powers to inquire into any act of a federal public authority that might be inconsistent with the definitive list of rights. Courts are to be the ultimate arbiters of whether unlawful discrimination has occurred. This is where churches stand to lose their ability to employ people who share their values. The committee tries to stop the courts having a role in relation to economic, social and cultural rights, but that division in itself would be a mess for lawyers to argue over which right fell into which category.”
Boswell concluded with these words: “The Nationals will be strongly taking up the fight against a bill of rights.” Good on him and the Nationals. They seem to be among the few sensible leaders we have nowadays. As always, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, and it looks like we have a lot more work cut out for us.