Why we need an Australian Bill of Rights - Susan Ryan AO

A joint forum to consider human rights in Australia and to launch the New Matilda campaign for a Human Rights Act

Ms Susan Ryan AO, Chair, New Matilda's Human Rights Campaign Committee

Human Rights Adelaide launch

These are bad times for Australia. We are suffering many attacks on our human rights, and increasing attacks on our traditional human rights. 

We have witnessed over recent years terrible violations of human rights of those adults and children in detention centres. These violations were, are perpetrated by an elected government and by agents of that government.

We have learned of the absolute destruction of the human rights of Australian citizens Vivien Solon and Cornelia Rau. 

There have been other terrible official actions like the condemnation to years in detention of Al Kateb, a stateless person, on the grounds solely of his statelessness.

We are all too aware of the ongoing violations of the human rights of many of our indigenous fellow citizens.

We know that the rights of Muslim Australians to practice their religious and culture are impeded by abuse and violence as they go about their daily lives in our cities and suburbs.

Many of you here tonight have taken steps, admirable and effective actions in defence of asylum seekers, refugees and indigenous Australians. But in general, the Coalition government has pursued these violations without electoral penalty and despite some criticism, without policy change.

The latest round of anti terror legislation, to be passed by the senate this week demonstrates, chillingly, how secure the Government feels in its ongoing and indeed accelerated violation of human rights, how unresponsive it has been, even to the concerns and criticisms of its own members and senators.

The times we are in are bad, not only because of these unprecedented attacks on our human rights, but even worse because we are faced with complete intransigence and numbing complacency by the federal government.

This complacency has to a large extent affected mainstream Australia.

We have to change that. 

Last Sunday on the ABC TV program Insiders, Prime Minister Howard look a bit puzzled. He can’t see any problems, he told viewers, with the Sedition provisions in the new bills. They have been around for fifty years, he claimed disingenuously. The new provisions are no different to the old ones, he pronounced, erroneously. Who will challenge him?

It is up to us.

The new Matilda campaign for Human Rights Act grew out of the concerns of the readers of New Matilda. It is a community campaign, a people’s campaign and that is its strength.

New Matilda is an independent online weekly journal, devoted to truth and accountability in government, better public policy and participatory democracy. It is a little over a year old and has a growing subscriber base of several thousand. 

When readers expressed their disgust and amazement at the practices in detention centres, and the daily acts of government that flew in the face of the international treaties on human rights, it became clear to me, as to others that the time for Human Rights Act for Australia had arrived.

Australia is the only western nation without such a bill, without constitutional or statutory protection of the rights of citizens. UK, New Zealand Canada have such protections and the ACT government has legislated a Human Rights Act for its citizens.

When it was pointed out in New Matilda a few months ago that Australia’s signing and ratification of international rights treaties had no force in law, and could be legally ignored by government, the question was posed, what can we do about it? 

The answer was, to change the law.

What we need, for those international treaties protecting our traditional rights to have force here, is a national act that embodies them. 

The Prime Minister does not want a Human Rights Act. In that same Insiders interview he claimed dismissively that- they don’t work!! 

The Act we are proposing will work, in the many ways that Spencer has described to you, and that is actually why the Prime Minister doesn’t want it. 

The readers of new Matilda wanted the Act, but wondered how it could be progressed in the current political environment.

Despite the intransigence of the government and its total control of parliamentary legislation, there was a way forward.

A New Matilda committee decided to prepare a draft bill to embody all civil and political rights, and economic and cultural rights set out in the UN conventions. 

That draft has been prepared by human rights law experts, principally Professor Spencer Zifcak who presented the bill to you this evening.

Our approach is directly opposite to Howard Government's. We have prepared and published a draft bill. It is available on the New Matilda website and we invite comments from all interested groups and individuals. We are actively seeking community input into the drafting process and our consultation will go all over Australia. 

Tonight is our South Australian launch, following the initial launch in Sydney, a Canberra event earlier this week, and to be followed by forums in the other states and the NT.

After this extensive consultation we will refine the draft bill.

We will then relaunch it, we plan, in April next year, in Melbourne. After that step we will take the bill and lobby all parties in parliament for its introduction into parliament as a Private Member’s bill.

We hope to have the bill in the parliament by next October.

This can work.

Our bill will impact on the parliament as long as we can demonstrate extensive community support.

We have no doubts about our capacity to frame a practical, effective and sustainable Bill. But we do need your support... 

This is an appeal to you for action.

I am very confident in making this appeal here at the Hawke Centre at the uni of SA, and in partnership with the Don Dunstan Foundation.

The names Hawke and Dunstan remind us of what governments can and should do to promote human rights.

I am sure you will all remember at the time of the Tienamin Square outrage, Prime Minster Hawke simply announced that all Chinese students studying in Australia could stay here. There were about 40 000 of them- a big number in contrast to the asylum seekers locked up by Howard. The consequences of Hawke’s act of humanity? Now, years later there are about 40 000 more educated and constructive Australian citizens. 

And then, Don Dunstan. 

All of you here tonight could readily imagine Don’s response to the anti terror laws. Don’s whole wonderful and productive life was dedicated to the fight against discrimination, and against the denial of rights of minorities. 

He left an inspirational track record of the use of government powers to promote the rights and opportunities of all citizens in this state.

We can easily visualise the steps he would have taken in the face of so many violations of what he believed in, especially the new anti terror laws.

I don’t think it is presumptuous for me to suggest that Don Dunstan would be throwing his support behind the campaign for a Human Rights Act for Australia. 

As I hope you will.

Thanks from New Matilda to all who have assisted on this forum, the Don Dunstan foundation, the Human Rights Coalition and the Uni of SA.

As it happens, as I was leaving home for this meeting, I received a Xmas Card from my dear friend Denise Bradley, the VC of this university.

It carried this message, a quote from the 19thc philosopher Herbert Spencer


I urge you to act with us to achieve a Human Rights Act for Australia