What are some of the human rights problems in Australia?
In Australia many people think that human rights are only relevant to events that happen overseas, for example political dictatorships, genocide, torture, arbitrary detention or extra-judicial execution.
However, human rights violations of one kind or another occur in all countries, including Australia.
There are numerous examples of human rights breaches in Australia. The following are examples of situations where Australia’s federal government has failed to adequately respect human rights:
asylum seekers – including children – have been detained in immigration detention centres indefinitely and for prolonged periods of time
Australian citizens and others entitled to live in Australia have been illegally detained or deported
anti-terrorism laws have infringed fundamental human rights without sufficient consideration of whether they are necessary
sedition laws have limited freedom of speech.
Many cases concerning human rights issues come before our courts. The new President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Catherine Branson QC, recently reflected on cases she heard as a Federal Court judge that reminded her that human rights remain a live issue in Australia.
One example was about the right of Commonwealth public servants to exercise their right to freedom of expression. In their capacity as private citizens these public servants wanted to participate in the day of action protesting proposed changes to workplace laws – a classic example of freedom of association and expression. Yet senior public officials thought it was appropriate to restrict their capacity to take the recreation leave or ‘flex’ leave to which they were entitled.
Another case, now known as the ‘annoying laws’ case, was about NSW regulations giving police the power to control the behaviour of people who might annoy the Pope and other Catholics who were in Sydney for the week-long World Youth Day celebrations. The regulation clearly restricted the right of people wanting to express their views about the attitude of the Catholic Church to sex before marriage, contraception, abortion and gay and lesbian relationships.
A third case was about choosing an appropriate aged care facility for an elderly man who had migrated to Australia from China late in his life. The decision-maker did not think it important to place him in a home that could provide the Chinese food that he had eaten all his life or a home that was close enough for his wife to travel and take him his food.
The President concluded:
My experiences as a judge left me persuaded, as they did my predecessor the Hon. John von Doussa QC, that in Australia we have legislatures that are insufficiently rights-conscious and bureaucracies that are insufficiently rights-sensitive. I don’t mean to suggest that our government is on a mission to breach human rights principles. But I most certainly mean to suggest that, currently, human rights is hardly a flicker in the eye of most law-makers and decision-makers. That has to change.
Two of the most startling examples of human rights breaches in recent years are explored in more detailed below: