Australia's elusive bill of rights

How is a bill of rights relevant today?

Robert McClelland

When the Twin Towers in New York collapsed on September 11 last year, the world changed - and Australia changed with it. Australia has been fortunate among nations to have only had a very limited first hand experience of terrorism. The events of last year, however, brought it very closely home to all of us that, if terrorism were to strike Australia, the consequences could be devastating. In this context, it is not surprising that in the lead up to last year's election, both the Labor Party and the Coalition promised to bolster Australia's anti-terror laws. But when the Coalition introduced its package of terrorism laws earlier this year, human rights took a low priority - prompting a number of important questions. Should we even be talking about human rights in times like these, when the world is facing new and troubling threats to security? Are human rights just a luxury when life is peaceful, and too much of a luxury when security of our society is really at stake?

It was said in Roman times that amidst the clash of arms, the laws are silent. But I hope no-one believes that now. In testing times, when people are looking for security at home and in the world, human rights are more relevant than ever. To take a small sample from the list of internationally recognised human rights, I mention:

  • the right to life;

  • the right to work;

  • the right to freedom from arbitrary interference with family life; and

  • the right to freedom from discrimination based on religion or nationality.

Each of these rights was denied to people who happened to be in two buildings in Manhattan on September 11. That included people of 80 nationalities and included Australians. This terrorist atrocity was a fundamental assault on human rights.

One of the urgent needs in responding to September 11, however, is to ensure that it does not serve as the excuse for further assaults on the human rights of ordinary men and women. Indeed, it can be argued that, if the fundamental values of freedom and democracy are diminished by terrorist attacks, then the terrorists have had a major success. In this paper I'll talk about the relevance of a Bill of Rights in the context of our society's new emphasis on security and terror. I'll also argue that any Bill of Rights should not focus purely on civil and political rights, but also include important social, economic and cultural rights. I'll conclude by looking at why Australia does not currently have a Bill of Rights and make some suggestions for the way forward.

Human rights and security This year we have seen the introduction of a package of security legislation by the Howard government in response to security concerns raised by the September 11 terrorist attack. In early May, attempting to explain some of the more draconian elements of the Howard government's terrorist legislation, the Attorney-General said: "We believe the community is prepared to make sacrifices of individual civil liberties in order that the community generally is protected from those threats". I believe that this statement showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between rights and security.

There is no reason why laws which deal with terrorist acts cannot give full protection to the basic rights and freedoms which all Australians have fought hard for, and have come to expect, while at the same time ensuring that there are adequate powers to deal with those people who seek to threaten