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Human rights act could lead to foreign committees undermining our legislative powers

As the debate over a proposed Human Rights Act resurfaces in Australia, I can’t help but feel like we’re being asked if we need an extra lock on an already secure door. We already have a robust system to protect our rights—do we really need another layer of legislation? 

In early 2023, Attorney-General Mr. Dreyfus tasked the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights to conduct an inquiry into Australia’s human rights framework. The committee, of which I am a member, has just tabled its final report recommending that Australia enshrine a Human Rights Act. The Coalition members have opposed the report and its recommendations. 

This isn’t Labor’s first attempt at a human rights bill. 

Since Federation, various federal Labor governments have flirted with the idea of introducing a Human Rights Act or a bill of rights. These include the Whitlam, Hawke, and Rudd/Gillard governments. 

Now, another Labor government is charging ahead with the same purpose using its numbers on the Human Rights Committee to recommend a Human Rights Act for Australia. 

While proponents of a Human Rights Act believe it is the magic bullet to rectifying society’s problems, any move by a federal government towards introducing one should be met with consternation, if not alarm. 

Why? 

In a Westminster-style political system such as Australia’s, the Federal Parliament – elected by the people – is the sovereign legislative institution that creates and passes laws. Parliamentary oversight ensures the accountability of elected politicians to the Australian people. 

Introducing a Human Rights Act will undermine the authority of our Parliament. Worse, it could shift our democratic principles to international bodies such as the United Nations or the World Health Organization. 

Chris Merritt from the Rule of Law Institute states, “One of the inevitable features of all charters and bills of rights is that they weaken parliamentary democracy because they require the judiciary, not the legislature, to make value judgments when setting the limits of fundamental rights.” 

Over time, these “value judgments” could politicise the judiciary, something we frequently see in the United States, where the majority of states directly elect their supreme court judges. 

Unlike Australia, where judges are appointed by governments based on merit, the United States has a mixture of appointed and directly elected judges in a process that is often acrimonious, politically partisan, and increasingly expensive. The 2023 Wisconsin state supreme court election reportedly cost around $37 million. 

How would the judiciary balance or prioritise one set of rights over another, for example, religious rights? 

In an era of increasing political partisanship, the last thing Australia wants is for the judiciary to become a new political football. 

Australia’s human rights record ranks higher than many other similar liberal democracies. The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index in 2023 ranked Australia 13th out of 142 countries, ahead of France (21st) and the United States (26th), both of which have enshrined constitutional bills of rights. 

We must recognise that our current system of common law, statutory protections, and parliamentary oversight is more than capable of safeguarding our rights and freedoms. We should focus on strengthening and refining this system rather than introducing a potentially problematic Human Rights Act. Let us have faith in our democratic institutions and continue to trust in the principles that have served us well for so long. 

So, when contemplating whether Australia should adopt a Human Rights Act, just remember: sometimes, more isn’t better—it’s just more.

 

Matt O’Sullivan is a Liberal Senator for Western Australia and a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.