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It’s time for a Human Rights Act

John Menadue

Elizabeth Evatt recently called for a Human Rights Act to protect all our rights and freedoms and not just freedom of religion. The issue of freedom of religion is being examined by Phillip Ruddock and his ‘expert panel’. This issue is also being examined by a Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

Meanwhile, our record in protecting our human rights is being seriously eroded in many areas—the right to silence, the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence, freedom from cruel and inhuman treatment and freedom from arbitrary detention. In the name of counter-terrorism both the government and the opposition have been trading our freedoms away. Instead of carefully weighing freedoms and security, the balance has swung dramatically against our freedoms. The Law Council of Australia and many others have expressed concerned about the erosion of our legal rights across a wide front.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has called for Australia to introduce comprehensive legislation to protect human rights in accordance with Australia’s obligations as a party to no less than seven international human rights treaties. The Australian government has consistently refused to implement this recommendation.

The Australian government boasts that it was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council. But that is no cause for self-congratulation. Only two countries nominated for two available positions. Our selection was automatic.

It is time for Australia to consider again a national Human Rights Act. There is a long history of concern and support for a national Human Rights Act, as far back as Federation. More recently, with Susan Ryan, Spencer Zifcak and others, in 2005 we launched a committee and a campaign in the Sydney Town Hall for a Human Rights Act for All Australians (see ‘Human Rights Act for Australia Campaign – a model statute’). After widespread consultation across Australia, we drafted ‘A Human Rights Bill 2009‘.

The Rudd government appointed Frank Brennan to report on a Human Rights Act for Australia. Brennan was then, and is still, a strong advocate for a Human Rights Act.. Regrettably, the Rudd government was persuaded by opponents that our rights were best protected by politicians rather than judges. Seriously!

It’s time to pick up again the work that Susan Ryan, Spencer Zifcak and many others commenced 13 years ago for a Human Rights Act for Australia that protects all treaty based rights and freedoms, including economic and social rights such as the right to housing for all citizens. Securing freedom of religion is desirable but does nothing to address our more serious human rights violations.

It really is time for our national parliament to legislate for an Australian Human Rights Act. A model statute is available for consideration.


John Menadue AO has had a distinguished career as an Australian businessman, public servant and diplomat, and is a regular public commentator through his blog Pearls and Irritations, from where this article is reproduced with kind permission. 10 December 2018 will mark the 70th anniversary of the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Australia was among the leading countries in developing and urging the adoption and Dr Herbert Vere Evatt presided over the occasion as the President of the General Assembly, the highest position in international affairs ever attained by an Australian.


Suggested citation

Menadue, John, 'It’s time for a Human Rights Act', Evatt Journal, Vol.17, No. 1, May 2018.<>


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