By Dave Munro
What is a Bill of Rights? What does it mean and why doesn’t the Australian government want it?
Probably the most famous Bill of Rights is the American version. The Bill of Rights is the name by which the first ten amendments of the United States Constitution are known. They were introduced by James Madison to the First United States Congress in 1789 and came into effect on December 15th 1791.
In the US the Bill of Rights exists because the anti-Federalists were strongly opposed to the Constitution as they feared the President could quickly become a king ruling over a disenfranchised people. The Bill of Rights set many important precedents for US citizens; it gave them the right to free speech and religion, the right to assemble and the right to petition the government. The Bill of Rights also set out the rules for the due process of law to ensure that citizens are not tried for the same crime twice, punished unreasonably for crimes or forced to incriminate themselves.
What of Australia?
Australia is a signatory to all five international treaties that make up the International Bill of Human Rights, but, none of these treaties is legally binding in Australia, and, there is not a Bill of Rights in the Australian Constitution. This means that the fundamental rights and freedoms of everyone living in Australia are not protected by law. We are not even covered, according to Byrnes, Charlesworth, McKinnon in Bills of Rights in Australia, by first generation rights:
“International human rights standards as set out in declarations and treaties embody civil and political freedoms, sometimes referred to as ‘first generation’ rights. These include the rights to life, liberty and due process; the right to be free from torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment; freedom from slavery and forced labour; the right to a fair trial; freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, association and movement; rights to privacy and respect for family life; the rights to vote and to participate in the political process; the rights of members of minorities to use their language and to take part in other communal activities; and the rights to equality and non-discrimination.”
Australia is a founding member of the United Nations. Australia was an active member of the Commission on Human Rights during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in fact held the Presidency of the UN General Assembly when the Declaration was adopted. Australian External Affairs Minister Dr. H V Evatt welcomed the Declaration as a “step forward in a great evolutionary process”. Australia is the only common law country without a Bill of Rights.
At a press conference in April 2004, then Prime Minister, John Howard, expressed his support for a Bill of Rights for Iraq but would not consider one for Australia. Since the events of September 11 2001, the offence of sedition has been resurrected to criminalise some forms of criticism of the government action. We have also passed laws which severely restrict the liberty of people who have not been found guilty of any offence.
Sedition: the stirring up of discontent, resistance or rebellion against the government in power. Webster’s dictionary.
Why not in Australia?
Several political parties have a Bill of Rights as an official policy platform including the Australian Labor Party, The Australian Democrats and the Greens (ALP National Platform and Constitution 2004, Chapter 7, nos. 11-12). We have had a Federal Labor Government since 2007 yet nothing has been done about developing a Bill of Rights for Australia.
The proposal for a Bill of Rights has been defeated several times since Federation though research shows that 54% of people did not believe that our rights are adequately protected in this country and 72% believe there should be some form of Australian Bill of Rights. This research was conducted in 1997, prior to September 11, the incarceration of people without charge for years on end, the problems of detaining illegal immigrants and the introduction of such legislation as the Serious and Organised Crime Control Act which attacks the fundamental freedom of association and the proposed use of “secret police intelligence” which denies the accused or their lawyer access to evidence.
The usual argument against a Bill of Rights is that we have a sound system that works, so “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” There are many that would argue that in 2010 that is no longer the case.
Serious and Organised Crime (Control) Act 2008
In the media and in government spin this is commonly referred to the “anti-bikie” act. This is a common misconception as the terms, “bikie”, “biker” or even “motorcyclist” are not mentioned anywhere in the legislation. This act can be used against any group in society. To rely on the benevolence or honesty of the Police Commissioner, Attorney-General or Government of the time is naivety in the extreme and fraught with danger.
Many states around Australia have jumped on the bandwagon that is the Rann Governments SOCCA act and some have or are in the process of approving their own legislation each trying to outdo the other in terms of “toughness”. In the meantime they garner loose support from a public they govern with the politics of fear overstating the criminal statistics and hiding behind parliamentary privilege to put forward their case of protecting a misinformed public. Statements have been made from behind privilege that if said outside the walls of Parliament would see legal action taken against members of the government.
It is worth noting that only Victoria and the ACT have remained apart from the other states in the push for “anti-bikie” laws, the same two who are the only jurisdictions in Australia that have a locally legislated form of a Bill of Rights. Does a Bill of Rights overrule some areas of this draconian legislation?
Where to now?
As a member of The F.R.E.E. Australia Party, a concerned Australian citizen, a motorcyclist and a free thinking person with no criminal record I find legislation such as the SOCCA legislation an affront to basic human rights and an invasion into the personal liberties and freedoms that a country such as Australia demands around the world through its involvement with the United Nations as a charter member and as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We have a new Parliament in Australia that has elected members whose party policy platforms include the introduction of an Australian Bill of Human Rights. Write to your Federal member and ask them their position on this important issue and importantly ask if they are going to do anything about it.
As Australians we also have the right to petition our government, the issue needs to be brought to a head before more Australians have their rights trampled on by draconian and unjust legislation.