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Australia’s legal community has renewed its push for a Federal Human Rights Act, following the release of a proposed model by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

Commission President, Rosalind Croucher launched the proposal to almost 200 of the country’s law professionals at an event hosted by Gilbert + Tobin on Tuesday 7 March, which featured an expert discussion panel with leading legal, constitutional, and human rights experts.

“A Human Rights Act is the central missing piece of government accountability in Australia. It will increase transparency and trust in governments by requiring them to fully consider human rights in their decisions, laws, policies, and practice,” Croucher said.

“The starting point for a national Human Rights Act is to recognise that everyone’s rights matter, all of the time.

“We should expect that Parliament and public servants will actively consider the human rights impacts of decisions they make.”

Australia is the only liberal democracy that does not have an act or charter of rights at a national level, and there are very few legal protections for people’s fundamental rights in Australia.

The AHRC’s Human Rights Act proposal is detailed in a comprehensive position paper, which is the result of an immense consultation and review of existing acts that exist in QLD, Victoria, and the Act.

The Commission’s model would create legal protections for the human rights of all Australians, and ways to seek justice if people’s rights are breached.

It would also provide options for people to challenge decisions that breach their human rights, and opportunities to go to court if their issues cannot be resolved through conciliation. This replicates the current process for discrimination complaints.

Nicholas Stewart, partner at Dowson Turco and Vice President of the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights told LSJ that the AHRC’s model would also increase the responsibility governments have to consider how their laws, policies, and actions might affect people’s human rights.

“I am worried that the Human Rights Commission has been a political football at times. To have Professor Croucher presiding over this Position Paper in a climate where human rights are becoming more visible and valued is wonderful,” Stewart said.

“There is continual debate about freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the right to be free from harassment. It is a good time for society to be talking about a Human Rights Act that considered all human rights, at a Federal level.

“If accepted by the Federal Government, the Human Rights Commission’s proposal will create an essential framework that enables everyone involved in the work of government to engage in a positive collective effort to realise greater freedom, dignity and equality for all of us. When governments legally articulate and protect everyone’s human rights the quality of decision-making is improved, and people are empowered to understand and stand up for their rights.”

In 2022, the Law Society of NSW released a paper calling for a standalone Human Rights Act in NSW. President of the Law Society of NSW Cassandra Banks said the organisation welcomes the AHRC’s Position Paper.

“The Law Society has long held the view that human rights legislation for NSW will create a fairer, more compassionate society, and our Election Platform for the 2023 State Election calls on all parties to commit to conducting a wide-ranging consultation with the community about the need for human rights legislation in NSW,” Banks said.

This is the second major report released by the AHRC as part of its major project Free+Equal: An Australian conversation on human rights.

In developing the proposed model, the Commission consulted with civil society groups, legal and constitutional experts, and human rights advocates. The paper is to be followed later this year by a final report that will be tabled in Parliament.