Media Release:  Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) has called for greater parliamentary oversight of legislation to ensure rights compatibility and also for a strengthening of the roles of Commonwealth and state ombudsmen in a submission to the National Human Rights Consultation late yesterday.

ACL has welcomed the opportunity to contribute to a process aimed at the protection and promotion of human rights and has called for any shortfalls in human rights coverage identified through the consultation process to be remedied by specific legislation targeted at the right in question.

In its major recommendation, the ACL calls for the Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee’s mandate to be strengthened to examine proposed and existing legislation against accepted international human rights instruments and legislated human rights standards.

“The Australian Christian Lobby, in keeping with most of the Christian community, has a deep concern for protecting and promoting fundamental human rights,” ACL Managing Director Jim Wallace said today.

“However we have been disappointed that much of the focus of the National Human Rights Consultation appears to have been on whether or not Australia should have a national charter of rights. This has meant that, like many other submissions, we have had to dedicate space to debating this issue, when we believe the most useful way forward is to further protect human rights through strengthening our existing processes.”

Mr Wallace said that strengthening the mandate of the Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee would provide for greater parliamentary oversight of legislation to ensure its rights compatibility.

Under Senate Standing Order 24 the Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills is tasked to examine all bills that come before Parliament and report to the Senate on whether they trespass unduly on personal rights and liberties, amongst other issues.

ACL believes that the role of this cross-party committee can be strengthened to provide better scrutiny of legislation against existing human rights standards.

“It is a simple and cost effective strategy which would ensure that the authority for determining rights and  responsibilities and for balancing competing claims would continue to reside with democratically elected representatives,” Mr Wallace said. “In particular cases the Committee might see fit to call witnesses or conduct a public inquiry.”

ACL has also recommended that the role of Commonwealth and state ombudsmen to oversee and ensure rightful access to the full range of entitlements and services be better publicised, and strengthened where necessary.

“Anecdotal, but nonetheless strong evidence from the Consultation roundtables, and from previous rights inquiries at state level, show that much of the shortfall in rights violations experienced by Australians actually amount to poor delivery of or access to government services, such as health and education,” Mr Wallace said.

“ACL is very concerned to see inequality in access to identified services remedied, particularly for those without their own economic or political clout. Strengthening and better promoting the role and profile of ombudsmen should help ensure their effectiveness in overcoming inequality.

“The National Human Rights Consultation is the perfect opportunity to audit Australia’s existing laws for gaps and inconsistencies. The Committee should recommend that such laws be amended to facilitate improved protection of human rights. Specific new legislation should be enacted to target identified issues.”

The ACL’s 20-page submission details five main reasons why a bill or charter of rights should not be enacted and calls on the Federal Government not to go down this path without holding a referendum to accurately assess public views.

Mr Wallace said that around 12,000 people have already signed a petition to the Senate calling on the Australian Parliament to reject a charter of rights.

Media Contact: Glynis Quinlan