Right now, the nation is gripped in conversation about health, education, families, housing and justice. The 2017 Federal Budget has just been handed down, and people are earnestly investigating what it personally means for them.
Will the local school lose funding? Will a house ever be affordable? How much will a trip to the doctor cost? Will any new jobs be created?
With these questions firmly at the forefront of people’s minds, it is the perfect time to talk about “human rights”.
Education is a human right. Housing is a human right. Medical care is a human right. Employment is a human right.
This is not how many people understand human rights. In fact, the mention of human rights usually only occurs in the context of repugnant laws which clearly violate rights, for example, detaining refugees in leaky, rat-infested tents on tropical islands, or housing juveniles in adult prisons. Or when discussing equal rights and discrimination, for example whether gay people should be legally allowed to marry, or mothers should be allowed to breastfeed in Parliament House.
Alternately, people incorrectly assume their human rights are already protected. They assume the Government cannot throw them in jail without a fair trial, cannot unjustly deprive them of property, and cannot pass laws to ban them from protesting.
However, unlike other nations with similar legal and political systems, Australia does not legislatively protect all human rights. The Australian Constitution does not include a Bill of Rights. Unless the governments enact into domestic legislation those rights found in the international documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, individuals have very little protection for the fundamental freedoms every person is entitled to, on the basis of being human.
Many things we take for granted are in fact basic human rights. Human rights cover such things as the right to life, the protection of the family and children, protection from discrimination, liberty and security of the person, to be treated equally before the law and be granted a fair hearing, the right to privacy and freedom from personal attack, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to peacefully express beliefs.
It includes freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, the right to work, and good working conditions. Additionally, it includes the right to adequate food, clothing, housing, medical care, the right to education and to participate in the cultural life of the community, and the right to a safe environment and to the protection of the environment from pollution and ecological degradation.
While some laws do exist to protect human rights, for example the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas), Age Discrimination Act 2004 (Cth), Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) and Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) there is no central piece of legislation which enshrines all the recognised human rights of Australians and Tasmanians.
It is time for this to change.
Governments across Australia are increasingly enacting laws which infringe on basic human rights. People have come to accept as normal all manner of laws which undermine the principles of natural justice and a fair trial under the guise of “getting tough on crime” and “terrorism”.
Mandatory data retention, anti-protest laws, indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers, warrantless arrests, abrogation of the right to silence and anti-association laws are all generally accepted by the community because many do not understand the concept of human rights, or they think human rights violations only happen in war torn, third world countries.
A Tasmanian Human Rights Act will change the conversation. It will define what a human right is and how human rights apply for ordinary people. It will help to challenge the perception that society can selectively pick which human rights are available and for whom.
Tasmania will not be alone if it enacts laws to protect and recognise fundamental freedoms. The ACT and Victoria have had human rights legislation for over a decade, and in 2016 the Queensland Government announced it too would adopt a Human Rights Act.
The Tasmanian Liberal Party website identifies many of the basic human rights as central beliefs. A majority of the Tasmanian Labor Party policies also find their basis in fundamental human rights and Labor has stated it will introduce and support a Charter of Human Rights. The Tasmanian Greens also has a policy to legislate a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities and to counter the erosion of civil and human rights.
It is evident that all parties are committed to protecting human rights in some form or another. Introducing legislation to recognise human rights should be a common ground for all Tasmanian politicians, regardless of party politics and personal belief.
And what better way to do this than for each party to make the introduction of a Tasmanian Human Rights Act a commitment for the 2018 election?
A Tasmanian Human Rights Act will cement and centralise many of the rights which parties have already publicly acknowledged are important. A dedicated Tasmanian Human Rights Act will ensure that legislators consider holistic implications of new laws while drafting. An Act will ensure that all future legislation is measured against these universal and inalienable rights.
While a Tasmanian Human Rights Act will only apply to local laws, it is an important step in accepting and recognising the rights of all people to, for example, health, education, housing and adequate food. It will provide a central resource for individuals to refer to when they feel their rights have been violated in whichever way. It is the perfect way for state politicians to tell the community they genuinely care about the issues Tasmanians face.
And once state politicians start speaking the language of human rights, perhaps their federal counterparts will follow suit.