Queensland Labor unveils Human Rights Act

Queensland Labor unveils Human Rights Act

Jared Owens for The Australian writes: 

Queensland Labor has unveiled the nation’s most expansive human rights regime, lawyers said today, embracing the law as a potent new arsenal to advance their clients’ claims of discrimination.

Announcing the bill, Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath hoped Queensland would “send a message to the rest of Australia” including community organisations and businesses about the importance of protecting human rights.

However there were also warnings that the law would concentrate too much power in the hands of unelected judges and officials, who would be required to balance competing rights without facing the same democratic accountability as politicians.

If the bill is passed, parliament would be required to consider whether new laws were consistent with the 23 protections articulated in the Human Rights Act, and the state’s existing body of law — comprising hundreds of acts — would be checked over to ensure they were consistent with human rights.

If a Queenslander believed a public entity had abused their human rights, they could complain to a new Human Rights Commission for a “compulsory conciliation” with their agency. If they were suing the government, they could also “piggyback” their human rights claim on the lawsuit and have it adjudicated in the courts.

If the court believed a law was consistent with the Human Rights Act, it could formally notify parliament, which would then launch an inquiry investigating the issue.

Ms D’Ath, when asked how the law would not become a “lawyers’ picnic”, stressed parliament would maintain its sovereignty and laws would not be invalidated by the Human Rights Act.

“Sovereignty of the parliament is protected in the sense that ultimately the parliament decides what legislation is passed and that legislation is upheld,” she said.

“The courts can’t overturn the legislation, nor can an individual take a standalone action in the courts for a breach of human rights, nor can they seek monetary damages.”

The bill affects “public entities” including government agencies, such as police and hospitals, as well as non-government organisations and companies that are contracted to provide services on the government’s behalf, such as a prison.

Institute of Public Affairs research fellow Morgan Begg warned there were “very limited” advantages to the scheme, while shifting greater power to unelected judges and officials.

“The trouble is where those rights conflict and need to be weighed against each other. How can you predict in which way the court would do that?” he said.

“Ideally you should have those sorts of contests between values competed in a democratically elected parliament. Entrusting the courts to do this, where there is very little accountability around what decisions are made, is a dangerous principle.”

Mr Begg urged caution about empowering a Human Rights Commission to oversee the system, saying that was “putting a lot of power in their hands”.

Queensland Advocacy senior lawyer Emma Phillips said her legal centre believed the law would help her advocate for clients with disabilities who currently have little legal recourse.

“We recently supported a Queensland family who have a primary school-aged child with disability that was segregated and locked in a dark room … during school hours and there was no remedy in existing Queensland law for that,” Ms Phillips said.

“In Queensland, all the time, sadly, we see babies and children removed from people with disability purely on the basis that they have a disability, often without any further inquiry.”

Human Rights Act for Queensland Campaign co-ordinator Aimee McVeigh said the bill had “gone further than any other government in Australia”.

The bill would protect 23 rights: life; recognition and equality before the law; protection from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; freedom from forced work; freedom of movement; freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief; freedom of expression; peaceful assembly and freedom of association; taking part in public life; property rights; privacy and reputation; protection of families and children; cultural rights, generally; indigenous cultural rights; personal liberty and security; humane treatment when deprived of liberty; fair hearing; rights in criminal proceedings; children in the criminal process; right not to be tried or punished more than once; retrospective criminal laws; right to education; and right to health services.

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