"Human Rights in Contemporary Australia"

Speech by Dr Sev Ozdowski at the United Nations Association of Australia - Tasmanian Branch - Human Rights Seminar: Human Rights from the Perspective of Individual, Collective and Corporate Responsibilities, Saturday 17 November 2001

1. Introduction

I am delighted to be invited to speak today at the Tasmanian Branch of the United Nations Association of Australia's Human Rights Seminar. Thank you for your invitation and your kind introduction.

I would like to acknowledge the Mouheneena people, the traditional custodians of the land on which we stand.

Despite its rather grand title, this presentation will be a relatively modest attempt to set out the key challenges for human rights in Australia as I see them at the outset of my term as Human Rights Commissioner. Let us begin with a quick survey of the state of human rights internationally and in Australia today.

Part A: Achievements of the 20th Century

1. International developments

At the outset of the 20th century, human rights as a concept really did not exist. The notion of citizens' rights was still relatively new - finding their genesis in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) and the American Constitutional Amendments shortly afterwards. But until the end of the second World War, governments' obligations to their citizens were considered principally to be internal, domestic, affairs. Action between governments to protect individuals was confined to establishing rules of armed conflict - the Geneva Conventions governing the lawful treatment of civilians and enemy soldiers in war time. This body of rules is known as humanitarian law. [1]

The conflagration of World War II and the insidious lead-up to it made it clear to the community of nations that respect for human rights would be fundamental to securing future world peace Therefore, the way in which governments treated their citizens was very much a matter of international concern.

The UN's human rights mandate

The United Nations was established in 1945 'out of the ashes' as they say of the League of Nations which had so abjectly failed to avert a second world war. Article 1 of the UN Charter defines one of the UN's objectives to be

promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.

The main functions of the new organization are set out in Article 55:

With a view to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, the United Nations shall promote:

a. higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development;

b. solutions of international economic, social, health, and related problems; and international cultural and educational co-operation; and

c. universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

The UN member countries agreed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 as a first and initially non-binding statement of human rights principles and standards. Since then the UN members have worked to articulate human rights standards as binding on themselves in international contracts or treaties.

The community of nations, through membership of the United Nations, decides what rights to enshrine in treaties. It is then up to each country to decide whether to accept each treaty or not. Australia has been at the forefront of UN activism and has been prominent among the drafters and the promoters of human rights treaties. There are very few human rights treaties not adopted by Australia.

The influence of regional arrangements should be recognised here, although it is not directly relevant to Australia. The European Union, the Organisation of American States and the Organisation of African States all have regional human rights treaties with regional monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.

What are international human rights?

Human rights are based on 'natural law' concepts. They are inherent in each and every one of us by virtue of our shared humanity. They are grounded fundamentally in the basic dignity and equality of each human person.

Although human rights do not derive from governments, their protection and enjoyment depend on governments to recognise them. Many human rights were protected by domestic legislation well in advance of the emergence of international human rights law and the treaty system. Human rights treaties are simply the mechanisms by which governments agree on those international human rights they will each recognise for their citizens.

Generally four generations of human rights are recognised:

1. civil and political rights

2. economic, social and cultural rights

3. the right to development

4. collective rights.

1. Civil and political rights are those from which the whole philosophy of human rights developed, namely the protection of the individual from the arbitrary exercise of power by the state. These are the rights without which we do not recognise a functioning democracy and include the fundamental freedoms of association, speech, peaceful assembly, thought, conscience and religion. They also include the protection of individuals from torture, arbitrary detention, inhumane treatment and abusive justice processes.

2. Economic, social and cultural rights are regarded in international law as rights to be achieved progressively as they become affordable. These rights are concerned with our material, social and cultural welfare. Here we find the right to work and to social security, to health care and education. Also, the minimum labour standards relating to safe working conditions, minimum leave entitlements and maximum hours of work, child labour and equal pay for work of equal value.

3. The right to development is based on the concept that "development is a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of [its] benefits". [2] The ultimate objective is a new international economic order.

4. The fourth generation of emerging rights are gathered together as collective or solidarity rights. They include the right to peace and a healthy environment. [3] Here too belong rights of peoples - most notably those rights which aim to secure the cultural survival of Indigenous peoples. [4]

Human rights treaties when ratified impose an obligation of protection and respect on each national government and parliament. Specifically, all member countries have voluntarily undertaken to

  • respect the human rights listed
  • refrain from violating human rights
  • protect human rights from violation by others
  • ensure the enjoyment of human rights without discrimination of any kind
  • take the necessary steps to give effect to human rights
  • ensure that victims of human rights violations have an effective remedy which can be enforced
  • limit fundamental freedoms only to the extent permitted in each of the treaties
  • balance the rights of individuals where they are in competition with each other.

2. Australian developments in human rights protection

Australia's system of human rights protection has evolved according to its own unique history, and alongside the international human rights system, during the 100 years since Federation.

The Constitution

Human rights - or citizenship rights as they might then have been known - were not included in Australia's Constitution despite the French and US examples. We followed instead the British model of reliance upon the common law to protect individuals against abusive interference by governments.

This is largely explicable by reference to our history - Australia's mostly peaceful development towards nationhood and independence. The federation was not forged in war or revolution; non-indigenous Australians have no history of struggle against massive human rights abuses. Governments established in violence have been much more likely to entrench those hard won human rights in their constitutions. But that is not the Australian experience.

This history leaves aside the violence committed in the establishment of Australian sovereignty against Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people, of course, were excluded from the constitutional debates and were not even considered part of the population for the purposes of the national census.

Just five individual rights were explicitly recognised in the Constitution:

1. the right to vote (Section 41)

2. protection against acquisition of property on unjust terms (Section 51(xxxi))

3. the right to a trial by jury (Section 80)

4. freedom of religion (Section 116) and

5. the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of State of residency (Section 117).

The Constitution is silent in relation to numerous other rights that are well recognised in the constitutions of other Western democracies. For example, the Constitution makes no mention of fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of thought, belief and opinion, and freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention. It does not guarantee the right to a fair trial or due process, nor does it ensure equality of all persons before the law.

First Acts

The first act of the new federal Parliament in 1901 was to pass the Immigration Restriction Act and the Pacific Island Labourers Act giving effect to the White Australia Policy. The federal franchise - the vote - was not extended to women until 1902.

Economic rights for adult European males were strongly supported in the early years of the new federal Parliament with the introduction of the compulsory conciliation and arbitration system in 1904. The Conciliation and Arbitration Court's first major judgment - Harvester in 1907 [5] - established the minimum - or basic - wage as a worker's right and introduced the national wage fixing system which prevailed in Australia for so many decades. Women's minimum wage was set at a proportion of that for men (initially 54%) until the Equal Pay Case of 1972 [6] while Aboriginal workers were excluded from the process until 1966 when Aboriginal stockmen were granted equal wages to non-Aboriginal stockmen. [7]

1960s - 1970s

Despite Australia's leading role in the development of international human rights standards, things remained pretty much unchanged at home until the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The 1967 Constitutional Referendum helped to change the legal and human rights landscapes of the following decades. The flowering of ratifications and new domestic legislation which followed from 1975 owes much to the Referendum debate and its outcome.

In 1975 the Racial Discrimination Act was passed. This Act implemented human rights standards into domestic law for the first time: the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

A Commissioner for Community Relations was appointed in 1975 to monitor the new Act. In 1981 Australia established the first Human Rights Commission as the mechanism for implementing the Race Convention and also the Civil and Political Rights Covenant ratified in 1980.

Also very relevant was the High Court's re-discovery of the external affairs power - that provision in the Constitution which gives the Commonwealth control of external affairs. Section 51(xxix) of the Constitution, the external affairs power, provides the Commonwealth Parliament with the power to legislate so as to incorporate provisions of international human rights conventions into Australian domestic law. States may also incorporate international human rights principles into state legislation to the extent that such legislation is not inconsistent with any Commonwealth legislation in the area.

For decades the external affairs power was thought to be confined to a power to conduct foreign affairs including the power to ratify treaties. When the treaty dealt with a subject the Constitution gave to the States, surely the Commonwealth could not intrude? The argument was illogical, of course, since one requirement of treaties is that they be implemented domestically. So the High Court found in a decision where Queensland challenged the validity of the Racial Discrimination Act. [8]

A High Court interested in an expansive reading of the Constitution has shown interest in finding that individual rights are implicit in the document - demanded by the constitutionally-established system of government. Thus in 1992 the individual right to communicate freely in political matters was recognised. [9]

Part B. Impact of international human rights law on domestic legislation

1. Instruments ratified by Australia

Australia has now accepted (that is, ratified [10]) most of the principal human rights treaties:

1. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights* (including the First Optional Protocol allowing individual complaints and the Second Optional Protocol on the death penalty)

2. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

3. Convention on the Rights of the Child*

4. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

5. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

6. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (but not the Optional Protocol allowing individual complaints)

7. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

8. Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees

9. UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education

10. Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention (ILO 87)

11. Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention (ILO 98)

12. Equal Remuneration Convention (ILO 100)

13. Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (ILO 111)*

14. Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention (ILO 156)

15. Termination of Employment Convention (ILO 158)

2. Instruments incorporated into domestic law

Australia has a relatively good record of incorporation of human rights treaties. The Race and Sex Discrimination Conventions are almost fully incorporated in Australian law in the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984. Of the remaining 13 listed above, the Refugee Convention, the Torture Convention, ILO 100 on equal pay, ILO 111 on employment discrimination, ILO 156 on family responsibilities and ILO 158 on unfair dismissal have been incorporated to a substantial extent in Australian domestic law. [11]

The others attached to the Commission's legislation - marked * - are not treated as incorporated because they do not give rights independently of the Commission's limited complaints jurisdiction. It should be noted, however, that many human rights, especially those relating to criminal investigation and trial, are similar to common law protections well-recognised in Australia.

One reason for our implementation record to date is the widespread belief that our democratic system of government, especially with an independent judicial system that applies and develops the common law are the best protectors of individual rights. The Prime Minister has expressed this view recently in the Parliament saying:

The government's position is that the best guarantee of fundamental human rights in this country is to have three things in our society. The first [is] a vigorous and open political system … The second requirement is to have a due process of law, a judicial system which is incorruptible … The third [is] to have a free press. [12]

3. HREOC and the protection of human rights

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) is a national independent statutory government body established in 1986 by an Act of federal Parliament called the HREOC Act. HREOC administers federal legislation in the area of human rights, anti-discrimination and social justice. This includes complaint-handling, public inquiries, policy and legislative development and human rights education and training. In raising public awareness of human rights, the Commission fosters public discussion, and undertakes and coordinates research and educational programs to promote human rights and eliminate discrimination.

The Commission also investigates alleged infringements of human rights under the HREOC Act and alleged infringements of the Commonwealth Racial, Sex and Disability Discrimination Acts.

a) Equality protection

Equality protection laws - including anti-discrimination Acts implemented by HREOC - are well-accepted in Australia. Allegations of discrimination in employment, education, housing, services and public places can be investigated by HREOC or one of the State and Territory equal opportunity agencies. Where the parties cannot come to a negotiated settlement of such a complaint, the complainant is entitled to take the matter to court for a decision and a remedy, including compensation where appropriate.

b) Civil and political Rights

Individuals may also complain to HREOC about human rights violations other than those falling within the provisions of the Racial, Sex and Disability Discrimination Acts, where the allegedly guilty party is the Commonwealth. However unlike complaints under the anti-discrimination laws, even if the Commonwealth is found to be in violation of human rights, no Australian court can award a remedy. Certainly the Commission cannot do so. The Commission only has power to report to the Parliament with recommendations. These reports may refer to individual complaints or to legislation which operates to violate the human rights of many - such as Commonwealth superannuation legislation which discriminates against same sex couples. Although the Commission's report must be tabled in Parliament, the government is under no obligation to adopt the recommendations.

Part C. Moving forward on human rights protection

1. Public opinion in Australia

Public opinion on human rights has played a crucial role in the development of human rights protection. For example, the Constitutional Referendum of 1967, which I referred to earlier, enabled an enormously influential public debate on racism. Almost 91% of voters agreed to the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the national census. This new awareness of the fuller dimensions of the equality ideal flowed on to the greater legislative protection of human rights in the Racial Discrimination Act and other legislation. No doubt the White Australia Policy, finally fully dismantled in 1973, and the damage it caused to Australia's international reputation and business prospects was also an influence.

Australians are now pretty comfortable with the general notion of rights and freedoms. We have a strong core national value of basic justice and fairness expressed vividly in the 'fair go' ideal. In opinion surveys over the last decade or so, Australians have overwhelmingly agreed on various rights as fundamental. Some of them received 100% endorsement including:

  • Freedom of political speech - on the process and functioning of government
  • Trial by jury - a trial by jury should cover everyone as a fundamental right
  • Freedom of religion
  • Protection of ethnic and racial minorities
  • Right to vote
  • Freedom from arbitrary arrest
  • Right to work
  • Protection of people with disabilities. [13]

Community confidence in the existence of equal rights in Australia has risen over the past decade. Almost two-thirds (64%) of 1,522 people surveyed in 1991 believed that we are yet to achieve equal rights in Australia and about the same proportion (67%) believed that minorities are unfairly treated in Parliament. [14] In 1999 a majority believed that equal opportunity is now enjoyed by women and migrants. [15]

Despite widespread endorsement of a range of rights, there remain institutional and other barriers to full protection of human rights through legislation. Those whose powers would be circumscribed by better recognition of individual rights - notably our parliaments - are unwilling to make any surrender. Parliamentary sovereignty is a cherished if little understood ideal. In 1991 a survey revealed that support for a bill of rights was only 57% among lawyers and 14% among Coalition MPs. Interestingly, 89% of Labor MPs were in favour of a bill of rights of some kind, 83% favouring a statutory rather than constitutional model. [16]

The second influence stalling better rights protection is that 'human rights' have had a bad press, perhaps since as long ago as the children's rights debates of the late 1980s. Many people believe that human rights are imposed upon Australia - in violation of Australian sovereignty - by the United Nations which in turn is portrayed as an unaccountable world government.

More than half of 1,505 Australians surveyed in 1991-92 believed that their rights are not well protected against unfair government action. [17] In contrast with the views of most citizens, 65% of lawyers and 79% of legislators (both Labor and Coalition) believe that human rights are well protected against unfair government action. [18] I really feel that view is overly complacent and possibly even self-serving.

Unfortunately recent issues such as the Tampa asylum-seekers incident have given rise to some negative public sentiments in relation to human rights. Such incidents have however also brought human rights issues to the forefront of mainstream consciousness, hopefully sowing the seeds for serious open national debate on the context of human rights within Australian society.

2. Goals to achieve

Australia must now work towards bringing human rights into the forefront of mainstream debate, and improving legal protection mechanisms for human rights. The goals of public support and legal protection go hand-in-hand and must both be addressed in order to ensure the enjoyment of human rights by all Australians.

a) Legal protection

If we are serious about developing effective mechanisms for human rights protection,the next steps in Australia's human rights evolution must be; first, the provision of effective remedies for Australians whose human rights are violated and; second, the setting of national benchmarks on minimum standards fully protected from government interference.

Australia has made tremendous progress in deciding what the standards ought to be at the international level and, to some extent, domestically. Now it is time to turn our attention to enforcement and entrenchment of these standards for the permanent protection of our expectations and our rights.

The lack of an effective remedy for rights violations is evidenced by the limits on HREOC's complaints powers. The contrast with remedies available in race and sex discrimination cases - not limited to financial remedies- is very stark indeed. One way to progress could be to give Australian courts the same role and responsibilities regarding human rights complaints as they have long had regarding race and sex discrimination complaints.

Reining in government is much more controversial in Australia as evidenced by our reluctance to consider the possibilities of a Bill of Rights. It is the absence of a Bill of Rights which has allowed State and Territory governments to impose indeterminate sentences and mandatory sentencing. It is the absence of a Bill of Rights which has allowed the Commonwealth to deny habeas corpus to people in immigration detention centres.

b) National Human Rights Dialogue

How do we move forward to the next stages of human rights protection in Australia? My priority as Human Rights Commissioner will be to progress these issues in consultation with the Australian people. To take human rights protection to the next stage in Australian law and public policy it is clearly essential to work first on attitudes towards human rights. I will undertake and extensive national dialogue on human rights which will, I think, work in three stages.

First there is a need for much more extensive and relevant human rights education. Until Australians have ownership of human rights and know and care about their own rights and those of others, there is no point talking about improved implementation. I am encouraged by survey findings that public opinion does favour better protection for individual rights. In 1991 72% of ordinary citizens surveyed wanted a bill of rights setting out basic rights and freedoms for individuals. [19]

The second stage of the dialogue will be a discussion about remedies - if rights are violated, where should the victim be able to seek a remedy and what should that remedy be?

The third stage will be a discussion about entrenchment - about drawing the line in the sand beyond which governments cannot step to infringe our rights and freedoms. What are those rights we want to entrench and how should we do that? We need to update ourselves on the new generation of bills of rights and get over the idea that the US Bill of Rights with its strained interpretations and excessive litigiousness is the only option out there. Canada, South Africa and the UK now offer an interesting range of alternatives which we should investigate for ideas in the development of a genuinely Australian statement of fundamental values. Ten or 15 years ago, of course, Australia was only one of many common law countries without a core human rights charter of some description. Today we are alone among our peers. While that cannot be the only argument in favour of adopting a bill of rights, it must be a reason to look at the question once again.

1. The first of the Geneva Conventions is dated 1864 and covers the immunity of military hospitals and medical staff.

2. Preamble, Declaration on the Right to Development (1986) at

3. See the Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment (1994) at

4. Note particularly the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (ILO 169) at, and the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (yet to be finalised) at

5. Ex parte H V McKay (1907) 2 CAR 1.

6. In the Equal Pay Case of 1969 - (1969) 127 CAR 1142 - the principle adopted was 'equal pay for equal work'. This was readily circumvented by labelling female workers differently - eg women were called seamstresses whereas men were called tailors. The principle in 1972 was 'equal pay for work of equal value': (1972) 147 CAR 172.

7. Re Cattle Industry (Northern Territory) Award (1966) 113 CAR 651.

8. Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen(1982) 153 CLR 168.

9. Australian Capital Television Pty Ltd v Commonwealth (1992) 177 CLR 106.

10. Australia undertakes a two stage adoption process of (1) signature which indicates intention to become a party in the future and (2) ratification which makes the treaty binding within a stipulated period. Between signature and ratification the federal government now undertakes a detailed State and Territory government consultation process.

11. Refugees Convention in the Migration Act 1958; Torture Convention in the Crimes Act 1914 (section 23Q) and the Extradition Act 1988; ILO 100, ILO 111, ILO 156 and ILO 158 in the Workplace Relations Act 1996.

12. House of Representatives Hansard, 5 April 2001, page 25680.

13. Social Science Data Archive, Rights in Australia 1991-1992: National Household Sample (1992, ANU, Canberra); Australian Election Study (1998, ANU, Canberra); Australian Constitutional Referendum Study (1999, ANU, Canberra).

14. Social Science Data Archive, Rights in Australia 1991-1992: National Household Sample (1992, ANU, Canberra).

15. Social Science Data Archive, Australian Constitutional Referendum Study (1999, ANU, Canberra).

16. Social Science Data Archive, Rights in Australia 1991-1992: National Household Sample (1992, ANU, Canberra).

17. Social Science Data Archive, Rights in Australia 1991-1992: National Household Sample (1992, ANU, Canberra); Brian Galligan and Ian McAllister, 'Citizen and Elite Attitudes Towards an Australian Bill of Rights' in B Galligan & C Sampford (eds) Rethinking Human Rights (1997, Federation Press) pages 144-153, at page 147.

18. Ibid.

19. Social Science Data Archive, Rights in Australia 1991-1992: National Household Sample (1992, ANU, Canberra).


Last updated 1 December 2001