Labor conference unanimously passes motion supporting parliamentary inquiry into charter of human rights

Labor conference unanimously passes motion supporting parliamentary inquiry into charter of human rights

A push for a new human rights act to head off legislative excesses in Queensland enjoys broad and “passionate” support among Labor MPs, according to the union who helped drive the issue at the party’s state conference, the Guardian Australia has reported...

Human rights act 'to head off Newman excess' supported by Queensland Labor

Joshua Robertson

The Labor conference in Brisbane on Sunday unanimously passed a motion by MP Peter Russo – the onetime lawyer who helped doctor Mohamed Haneef defend a botched terror prosecution by the Australian federal police – for a parliamentary inquiry into how a rights charter would be implemented.

It came six months after the Palaszczuk government committed to examining the proposal as a condition of winning the support of independent MP Peter Wellington to take office.

The campaign was inspired in the wake of contentious moves by the former Newman government on everything from G20 protesters to juvenile offenders, bikies and people with disabilities.

Alex Scott, the state secretary of the Together union, which co-sponsored Russo’s motion, said a broad coalition of groups driving the campaign had seen “very little opposition” after spending “a lot of time talking to the backbench”.

“Most MPs have been overwhelmingly supportive and certainly I think the leadership shown by Peter Russo has been very strong,” he told Guardian Australia.

“People are very passionate about it, both within the coalition and among a range of parliamentarians we’ve spoken to.”

Scott said the treatment of the issue at the conference, which did not “determine the agenda for government [but] set some parameters”, showed the prospects for a bill of rights were promising.

“I think the fact [support for the motion] was unanimous is important,” he said.

“If there was going to be pushback from government or bureaucracy, or anybody around that, we would have expected that to have occurred.”

Scott said a bill of rights would also give the Palaszczuk government an opportunity to focus on “what future solutions are rather than just de-Newmanising stuff”.

“A lot of the reforms the government’s done have been just removing the legislation, the bad stuff, done under the last government,” he said.

“The bill of rights I think is the first stage of the discussion – how do we avoid a future Newman – rather than just how do we fix the last Newman.”

Shane Duffy, the chief executive of Australian and Torres Strait Islander legal service, said a bill of rights would have “great significance” for Indigenous people.

“What it does is provide an opportunity to put a litmus test over any proposed bill that comes before parliament that disproportionately or adversely impacts on Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people,” he told Guardian Australia.

Duffy pointed to changes by the former Newman government to juvenile justice legislation, removal of detention as a punishment of last resort, and bail laws, as examples of such laws. He said a human rights act would need to be one with “a little bit of bite”.

Michael Cope, president of the Queensland council for civil liberties, called on the government to follow through with the inquiry.

“The behaviour of the Newman government demonstrates clearly the need to reform the protection of basic rights and liberties in this state,” Cope said.

Cope said it would provide restraint on politicians who “everywhere and everyday … use the pretext of some new or not so new threat to justify depriving citizens of rights and liberties which have been won at great cost and after centuries of struggle”.

He said the only serious objection to the legislation, that it gave “too much power to judges and is undemocratic”, was overcome by the fact parliament could override it in certain cases.

“A charter of rights would provide a significant improvement in the protection of civil liberties by requiring the courts to interpret laws in accordance with it,” Cope said.

“But perhaps even more importantly, a charter will improve government decision making by demanding that decision makers focus on the individual being affected by their decisions.”

The campaign for the human rights act will include a forum next month at parliament, featuring speakers including former Victorian attorney general Rob Hulls, who helped implement a similar act there in 2006.

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