There are some rights we can probably all agree people are entitled to. The right to live free from violence and to be treated fairly by the law. The right to freedom of thought and expression, and for children and families to be protected. The right of Aboriginal Australians to have their culture recognised and respected.
The good news is these are just a few of the 20 rights that are already recognised in Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, introduced 12 years ago. Every Bill presented to the Victorian Parliament is first assessed against the Charter, and laws already passed can be challenged in the courts of they aren’t compatible.
There are some real success stories since the Charter took effect. It has helped a mother with a disability keep her young child, compelled the state’s anti-corruption agency to investigate allegations of racial abuse and physical assault by police, stopped authorities from jailing a man with disabilities for unpaid fines and blocked the sterilisation of a young woman with an intellectual disability.
But despite these wins the truth is the Charter doesn’t go far enough.
It doesn’t cover many of the rights Victorians facing disadvantage are most likely to need protected. For example, it doesn’t safeguard a person’s right to a safe place to live, a full stomach, decent healthcare, a social security safety net or a good education.
Without these economic and social rights, many of the rights that are covered in the Charter seem a bit hollow.
For instance, can someone be truly free from violence if they lack the social safety net required to leave an abusive relationship?
Can we really exercise our freedom of thought and expression if everyday is a relentless struggle to secure necessities like housing and enough food to eat?
And how can Victoria claim to protect the rights of children without guaranteeing them decent healthcare and a good education?
The Charter also falls short on cultural rights by failing to provide for the self-determination of Aboriginal people.
When the Charter was introduced, some experts diplomatically called it ‘“cautious” and a “compromise”. VCOSS welcomed it as an important step in building a strong human rights culture. But now it’s time for the next great stride.
“Can someone be truly free from violence if they lack the social safety net required to leave an abusive relationship?”
As well as the addition of economic, social and cultural rights, the Charter must be updated to include stronger remedies when Victorians’ human rights are breached. At the moment there’s no direct recourse for people to address breaches through legal action, which has led to the Charter being labelled a ‘toothless tiger’.
Two years ago, the Victorian Government responded to an eight year review of the Charter. That review recommended a range of ways to strengthen the human rights culture in Victoria, and to its credit the Government supported 45 of the review’s 52 recommendations. It also committed to considering four other recommendations, including giving people the ability to go to court if their human rights have been infringed.
Unfortunately, since then we’ve heard virtually nothing.
It’s past time the Victorian Government amended the Charter to make it more comprehensive and better able to protect and promote the human rights of all Victorians.
It’s time to give this tiger some teeth.