Queensland’s proposed Human Rights legislation

Look beyond stereotypes to a unique statement of values

by Associate Professor Susan Harris-Rimmer

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II, a pretender to the throne outlines the Utopia that will come when his unruly mob helps make him king. The unruliest of them all, Dick the Butcher, leers in an aside to the audience, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Wherever and whenever it is staged around the world, Dick always brings the house down. Steven Spielberg uses much the same technique in the movie Jurassic Park, when the venal lawyer is eaten by the T-rex while on the toilet. Guffaws all round.

Now I’m not here to naysay lawyer jokes. Keep ’em coming, I say. I am just here to alert you to the reflex commentators are hitting by naming any attempt to legally protect human rights in a piece of legislation as leading to a “lawyer’s picnic.”

The Queensland Parliament is considering the merits of a human rights act for Queensland, based on 22 years of experience in other jurisdictions. The argument is that such an Act is a good move for better policy implementation.

The counter-argument is that Queensland already adequately protects human rights. An inquiry has been held, hundreds of submissions received, and a report issued from the Committee. The Government members recommended legislation, Opposition did not agree, ending in stalemate. There have been legislative and policy moves on some of the issues raised in the many submissions, namely the incarceration of 17 year olds in adult prisons and particularly indigenous youth in detention, as well as abortion law reform.

Last week Premier Palaszczuk announced that the Cabinet would move to introduce new human rights legislation modelled on the Victorian Charter for Human Rights and Responsibilities Act.

The fur, in other words, folks, is about to fly. The “lawyer’s picnic” and the “power-mad judge” mantras are about to be invoked.

Victoria and the ACT have human rights legislation and the litigation frenzy never occurred. Besides, a human rights lawyer’s picnic usually features hummus, a bit of John Butler on the radio and lots of hugging. I promise you these affairs are in no way to be feared.

My point is that the opportunity of the inquiry and now the introduction of a bill is more important than any of legal debates. Human rights protection is not, and should not be, about lawyers.

The whole point of the exercise should be making sure that bad stuff does not happen to people in the first place. Human rights at their core are about the conversations citizens could have with their government about the ways power should be used against individuals, and what obligations citizens should have towards others in their communities.

The Human Rights Act for Queensland campaign has done a great job in making these issues accessible for Queenslanders but general media coverage has been sparse and polar.

Australians often think three things when they hear the words “human rights,” based on stereotypes and the odd news story:

  1. “Human rights are about what happens to terrorists and boat people or foreigners generally, not about me.”
  2. “Bad human rights stuff only happens overseas, not here.”
  3. “Human rights are about big public issues like the death penalty or stoning or coups.
  4. Somewhere overseas (see point 2). To foreigners (see point 1). It doesn’t affect my everyday life and my family.”

Human rights are involved in these big international issues, and touch on many fault lines in society about race, religion and politics. But where countries have enacted human rights legislation, such as in Britain, it is ordinary folk engaged in everyday activities involving government services that have often reaped the benefits. Victoria has collected 101 stories like this since they got their Charter — real people, real lives improved.

Human rights can be about the way your government treats you, every day. Do you feel like a person with dignity treated with respect when you talk to a Queensland public authority? What about when your parents went into an aged care home? What about when you go? What about when you are a public patient in a Queensland hospital?

Often, human rights protections provide no silver-bullet solutions for any of these things, but they offer counter-arguments and a point of view based on the dignity of the individual. The impact on an individual or family or marginalised group is usually the first thing that gets lost when governments face hard decisions, especially about resources. Think of the movie The Castle. What can one family do when the weight of the state is pressing down on them? Other than make friends with a barrister who miraculously offers to represent you in the High Court for free, that is?

If there is one thing I have learnt about Queensland after a decade living here, is that it is a unique place. Only one Parliamentary chamber, a big slice of geography, lots of remote areas, lots of natural resources, and insufficient respect from the states below us who run the country. It is no surprise to me that Queenslanders were the first to propose a human rights act at a state level, and that a great Queenslander Sir Samuel Griffith proposed a draft Federal Constitution with human rights provisions, (drafted by a Tasmanian, Inglis Clark, admittedly). A unique place needs a unique statement of values.

Whatever you think about human rights, there is a rare opportunity in this Queensland debate about rights to have your say. Let’s build a system where you don’t need the lawyers. We are always off picnicking anyway.



Associate Professor Susan Harris Rimmer is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in Griffith Law School, and an Adjunct Reader in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. She is also a Research Associate at the Development Policy Centre in the Crawford School, ANU. Her Future Fellow project is called ‘Trading’ Women’s Rights in Transitions: Designing Diplomatic Interventions in Afghanistan and Myanmar.

Associate Professor Susan Harris Rimmer (BA[Hons]/LLB[Hons] UQ, SJD ANU) is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in Griffith Law School, and an Adjunct Reader in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. She is also a Research Associate at the Development Policy Centre in the Crawford School, ANU.

Susan is the author of Gender and Transitional Justice: The Women of Timor Leste (Routledge, 2010) and over 30 refereed academic works. Susan was chosen as the winner of the Audre Rapoport Prize for Scholarship on the Human Rights of Women for 2006.

She often acts as a policy adviser to government and produces policy papers. Susan was selected as an expert for the official Australian delegation to the 58th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York in March 2014. She has provided policy advice on the UNSC, G20, IORA and MIKTA.

Susan is the G20 correspondent for The Conversation. She is part of the Think20 process for Australia’s host year of the Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane 2014, a member of the W20 in Turkey and attended the St Petersburg Summit in 2013 and the Brisbane Summit in 2014.

Sue was awarded the Vincent Fairfax Ethics in Leadership Award in 2002, selected as participant in the 2020 Summit 2008 by then Prime Minister Rudd, and awarded the Future Summit Leadership Award, 2008, by the Australian Davos Connection (part of the World Economic Forum). In 2014 she was named one of the Westpac and Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence in the Global category.

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