What are human rights?
They are rights that relate to freedom, to respect, to equality and to dignity.  We are now accustomed to having equality rights enshrined in legislation but those other rights are just as important because they are about how individuals interact, how they are protected, how they should be treated.  I sort of look at Human Rights as being very important guides to how we behave.  After the wars of last century there was a real strong sense that we needed to have these universally agreed rights.

What are some examples of Human Rights?

There is things like freedom of association. I was a young fella in Brisbane when we had street march bans here and it would be a war zone between protestors or street marchers and police. If you look at the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People things like self-determination, the right to participate in decisions that affect you, non-discrimination and equality and what we talk about as respect for and protection of culture.

So who do Human Rights protect?

Human Rights protect people and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a business man or a prisoner you still have access to those basic Human Rights if they’re enshrined in law.  You don’t have to do anything to be entitled to Human Rights because you’re human.  Well I think we all benefit from Human Rights legislation.  Clearly for some people there might be a more immediate benefit.  So for example people who are vulnerable, perhaps people with a disability,
who may have a great deal of challenge in actually interacting with a society in a more general sense.  Do I need that protection? No I am a reasonably powerful person, in a powerful position. Will I want to have those protections in 30 years’ time when I might be frail or I might be brain addled in a nursing home? Yes I do.  Do I want those protections when my grandchildren go into childcare and they have responsibility handed to someone else in that position? Yes I do.

How can a Human Rights Act protect people?

By enshrining those rights in law it gives guidance to corporations, it gives guidance to government institutions whether they’re a prison or a hospital, or a childcare centre, or an aged care facility. It gives guidance to all of those institutions to say that there are certain protections that a human being has. Reforms that were brought in the eighties have actually made the public service a whole lot better and more accountable than it was previously. And I think this is similarly what would happen if we had a Human Rights Act.

What would a Human Rights Act do for Queensland?

We’re behind the world in not having these rights enshrined in legislation and whilst we sign up to various treaties and conventions as a country, we don’t have the enforceability mechanisms to really lift the Human Right standards of us as a community.  It’s actually about ensuring that the people of Queensland are going to be treated fairly when they come into those interactions with institutions that have obligations under the Act.  In the federal government we’ve now got a Human Rights Scrutiny committee that looks at every piece of legislation that goes through parliament to see if it complies with our Human Rights standards. I think that sort of thing would be pretty useful in Queensland particularly when we are proposing different laws. It’s almost a quality assurance tool.

Did we do the right thing according to Human Rights standards?

Did we involve people in the decision-making part of a policy who are going to be affected by that policy or that service.  We’re trying to fix up stolen wages.  How do we actually reassure our mob that the stolen wages will never happen again in Queensland?  We need checks and balances.

Are there examples of the benefits of a Human Rights Act in Australia?

Victoria’s had a Human Rights Act for some time now, and similarly in the ACT.  So they have been the leaders and in some ways there’s some learnt experience there from both of those jurisdictions.  We saw, for example, the case of a woman living with cerebral palsy who was at risk of having her child taken away from her by child protection authorities, and this is actually an issue which is quite common.  She was able to demonstrate with the assistance of the Charter of Human Rights that so long as she could demonstrate that she was competent enough to care for the child, and to look after the child’s interests, that there was no reason why the child should be taken away from her.  A lot of us argue the best interests of a child is keeping a family together.
So it could be that you actually use a Human Rights Act around that to say well we actually got to take focus on supporting families.

We’ve actually seen that there have been many examples which relate to older people.  So we see the case of a 96 year old woman who was given a 60 day notice to vacate her home, and she wasn’t able to find alternate accommodation.  The notice was contested and the advocate argued that it was a breach of rights.  She was given additional time and also funding to find appropriate accommodation.

There’s a really poignant example of a man with a disability. He wasn’t afforded the opportunity to actually open his own mail. This was a right that was evoked under the Charter of Human Rights that said, irrespective of whether he has a disability or not, he does have that right to privacy. A word that you’ll see popped up in Human Rights a fair bit is ‘proportionality’.

Is the response proportionate to the problem?

Mandatory sentencing’s a good example.  We keep on arguing that mandatory sentencing is a breach of Human Rights.  I’m sure governments, if they had a Human Rights based approach to it,  they wouldn’t be coming up with half of these ideas.  The lesson is really is that this is a good thing for individuals and it’s a good things for communities.