Dr. Helen Watchirs, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Human Rights and Discrimination Commissioner, recently expressed her disappointment that the Commonwealth Government ignored major recommendations from the National Human Rights Consultation, when it finally decided not to pursue the enactment of a National Human Rights Act.
"Australians are clearly in favor of a national human rights act," said Dr. Watchirs. "After such a comprehensive consultation process, I am disappointed the Commonwealth Government will not respect our wishes and enact a human rights act," she added.
The ACT was the first jurisdiction in the country to adopt a human rights act in 2004.The ACT Human Rights Commission was established in 2005 to promote and protect the rights and well being of all people living in the Australian Capital Territory. The Commission is an independent statutory agency established by the Human Rights Commission Act of 2005.
The Hon. Robert McClelland MP, Federal Attorney-General, announced earlier that the Commonwealth would follow many recommendations of the National Human Rights Consultation, but not the key recommendation of a legislated Bill of Rights. The Consultation Committee conducted sixty-six community consultations receiving more than 35,000 recommendations on human rights concerns.
However, Commissioner Watchirs said that, "The investment of $12 million in human rights education and a new Joint Parliament Committee on Human Rights is welcome. The Commonwealth's new Human Rights Framework requiring ministers to table compatibility statements when they enact legislation is also welcome," she added.
She claimed that conservative commentators misled the public by consistently arguing that a legislated human rights act is undemocratic. Watchirs further explained that if ever the Commonwealth Government decides to pursue the enactment of the law, it would still need to pass a parliamentary proceeding.
Dr. Watchirs nonetheless welcomed the announcement by Mr. McClelland that the Commonwealth would follow other recommendations of the National Consultation.
"I also welcome the commitment to review Commonwealth discrimination legislation, with a view to consolidating and harmonizing equality protection in a single Act. Review of existing Commonwealth legislation and policy for human rights compliance is also welcome," the Commissioner stated.
"However, I feel we have missed an opportunity to better protect our most vulnerable people with enforceable rights, such as the rights of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, people with disabilities and refugee applicants," said Dr. Watchirs.