After years of lobbying, Queenslanders will soon be protected under a Human Rights Act, to replace a patchwork of legislation under a new framework to ensure freedom of speech, safety, privacy and equality.
Michael Cope, from the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, said Australian states were some of the last in the Western world to be covered by such an act.
“We know from history that democracies can quickly change from being democracies to something else,” Mr Cope said.
“It only took Hitler six or seven years to transform Germany.
“I’m not saying that’s about to happen here, but the notion that those sort of things can’t happen here or the notion that the system is perfect and we don’t need to improve it is completely false and history demonstrates that.”
The Human Rights Act was introduced in state Parliament on Wednesday and is expected to be passed early next year.
What rights will be protected?
The bill will provide provisions to protect 23 human rights including:
- Recognition and equality before the law
- Right to life
- Protection from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
- Freedom from forced work
- Freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief
- Peaceful assembly and freedom of association
As part of the move, the Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland will be rebranded as the Queensland Human Rights Commission and will take complaints from members of the public under the new system.
Under the framework, a breach of the Human Rights Act would not result in a criminal proceeding but allow complainants to take their case to the Human Rights Commission for mediation or remedy.
The act will not provide a right to sue for compensation unless it is sought under existing laws.
Queensland will be the third jurisdiction in Australia to introduce a Human Rights Act, behind the ACT and Victoria.
One act to replace the ‘patchwork’
Mr Cope said it would cover any existing gaps in the system.
“We have a patchwork of legislation that protects our rights and [we have] the Common Law, but what the Human Rights Act provides is a comprehensive protection,” he said.
“It sets out a series of basic rights and requires that the Parliament and the government, the bureaucracy, complies with them.
“We in Queensland regrettably have a history of authoritarianism from both sides of politics quite frankly – we don’t have an upper house, we need to improve protections of our basic rights and this is what this legislation does.”
Dan Rogers from Caxton Legal said the Human Rights Act was no silver bullet but would enhance a broad spectrum of individual rights.
“The experience in Victoria and the ACT – who have had similar pieces of legislation for over a decade now – has been really positive in terms of a better culture around human rights,” he said.
“When government departments deliver services, they’re more likely to comply with our fundamental human rights.”
Privacy, security and safety protected
The act is designed to enhance the protection and privacy of individuals and their interactions with government departments like corrective services, police and even local councils.
“There will be a general right to privacy and that right … will be broader than the rights that are currently contained in the privacy legislation,” Mr Cope said.
“It will mean that you won’t have to rely on the under-resourced Privacy Commissioner.
“People will be able to take their own action if they are concerned, for example, about local councils setting up cameras that can record your conversation and that sort of thing, about abuse of search powers by police or by other government inspectors.
“It will provide a broader range of protection in relation to the use of surveillance devices and it will enable people to take their own action.”
Aren’t existing laws enough?
Mr Rogers said not everyone in the legal sector agreed it was needed.
“There are people that have concerns, some people feel it is just not necessary,” he said.
“Some people think it will give too much power to an unelected judge … but Queensland’s Human Rights Act will not allow judges to strike down laws or create laws – it will simply require judges to interpret laws that exist that are compatible with human rights.
“If for example a Queensland judge identified an incompatibility between a law that existed and a human right, the Supreme Court judge can’t strike down that law but they can issue what’s called a Declaration of Incompatibility – which is basically an advice to the Parliament that there’s something that’s incompatible and then Parliament can decide if they want to do something about it or not.
“Some people think a Human Rights Act is just an unnecessary expense. In Victoria the cost of introducing and then overseeing the implementation of a Human Rights Act was quantified at 50 cents per person, per year.”