COVID-19 prompts dramatic spike in support for a national human rights charter

Significantly more Australians support a human rights charter than before the pandemic began. Picture: Shutterstock
Significantly more Australians support a human rights charter than before the pandemic began. Picture: Shutterstock

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the number of Australians wanting their human rights established by law.

The ACT became Australia's first jurisdiction to implement a rights charter in 2004, followed by Victoria and Queensland. But Australia remained the only western country without a national human rights charter, despite a government report recommending its implementation as far back as 2009.

An opinion poll of 1000 Australians conducted by the Human Rights Law Centre, showed a growing support for rights established by law, particularly among younger people.

The survey found 46 per cent of respondents supported a charter of human rights, an increase of 13 per cent since 2019, the year before the pandemic began.

Just 10 per cent opposed a charter. When split into a binary of "yes" and "no", support rose to 75 per cent.

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With more than half of Australians under lockdown due to COVID-19, HRLC executive director Hugh de Kretser said the pandemic had brought human rights issues into sharp focus.

"Human rights are very much at the forefront of people's minds as they experienced the health risks of COVID, and also the impact of restrictions imposed by governments to guard against those health risks," he told The Canberra Times.

"People are asking ... what rules are there that determine when governments can and can't restrict our human rights.

"I think that's a large cause of a big uptick in support for a Charter of Human Rights."

A charter would create protections for human rights - including civil, political, and cultural rights - under Australian law. Mr De Kretser said examples in Queensland and Victoria had shown public benefits throughout the pandemic.

The Queensland Human Rights Commission intervened in December to remove a three-year old autistic girl from quarantine after she became "highly distressed".

And a damning report from the Victorian ombudsman uncovered multiple human rights violations during the state government lockdown of a public housing tower in 2020. Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass' recommendation of a more effective right to review for people detained under public health laws became law.

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But De Kretser said not all benefits of a human rights charter would be similarly public.

"A charter working effectively will become part of the DNA of how a government operates," he said.

"When governments are developing new laws and delivering services, if the charter is working properly, they will think [about] human rights before acting.

"They will adjust their policies and procedures to make them more human-friendly, and to think about the human impact of government action."

Support for a human rights charter increased most among 18 to 49 year-olds, though dropped slightly in the over-65 cohort.

But more than 80 per cent of respondents supported some form of document setting out citizens' rights and responsibilities in "clear language", an increase from 66 per cent in 2019.

A Commonwealth government report recommended a charter of rights be introduced in 2009 after more than 35,000 public submissions, but the Rudd government and its successors have declined to implement the recommendation.

Anti-discrimination laws went some way to providing protection, De Kretser said. But he argued a national framework would more effectively help Australia live up to its international human rights obligations.

"What a charter does is provide protection of people's rights under our domestic law, and lives up to the promises we've made on the world stage to protect human rights," he said.

"At the moment we've just got this patchwork of laws that have holes in them."

The Law Council of Australia said its creation would only require an act of parliament, rather than a constitutional amendment, and could be updated via the same means.

The LCA said a charter would create a framework through which citizens could object to government actions or laws.

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This story More Australians want rights defined by law since COVID-19 first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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