Human rights Opinion

Australia needs a federal human rights act

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A human rights act would cover areas such as the unfair incarceration of children (Screenshot via YouTube)

A human rights act would repair much of the damage caused by the Government's lack of compassion to disadvantaged citizens, writes Gerry Georgatos.

A FEDERAL HUMAN RIGHTS ACT will coalesce the Australian community closer together, reduce the risks to the erosion of civil liberties, protect rudimentary human rights which we falsely take for granted and as if immutable. Without a federal human rights act, our nation remains hostage to the Kafkaesque, to deportations, to arrests and detainments without court warrants and without substantive grounds.

The eight states and territories must also have a jurisdictional human rights act, which cannot conflict with the federal one, but which is ancillary and extends to state and territory jurisdictional responsibilities such as correctional facilities and therefore the rights of the incarcerated. No one must be lost, no one alone.

The Australian Constitution was scribbled together at a time of horrendous discriminations, of reprehensible racisms. At a time when the invaders dished out eugenics, apartheid, segregation, exclusion of peoples and who federated White Australia policies.

A federal human rights act must protect the rights, make impermissible the Kafkaesque, for all citizens and all residents — special visa residents, permanent and temporary visa residents, refugees and asylum seekers. No one who walks this continent, no matter where they are from or why should ever become unseen and unheard.

I have been representing residents of many years living on this continent, some who have Australian born and bred children, who have had their visa revoked and hence at-risk of deportation. Unaccountable bureaucrats and politicians bent by muddled-minded dogma playing out age-old racism.

A decade ago, I fought for up to 158 Indonesian children of who the majority were incarcerated in Australian adult prisons, while the remainder languished in squalid immigration detention centres littered across the continent.

Every human being should be protected in terms of their rights. Australia’s human rights record, on so many fronts, has degenerated contextually to its lowest ebb during the last quarter-century. A federal human rights act can repair Australia’s appalling record of human rights abuses. Human rights and civil and political liberties should never be at the behest of any government but rather by referenda to the people.

The social good, the common good and universality should never be tenuous or frail because of a change of government. Without a human rights act, we are at risk of tyranny by government.

The common good in all of us aspires to an Australia with the world’s best human rights record.

No nation should be at the behest of populism and no government should be unaccountable. A human rights act commits governments to the common good. A comprehensive robust human rights act ensures a higher level of trust from the people than is the case with the absence of one. The work of government becomes clearer and monitored where there is a human rights act.

The Australian Capital Territory enacted a Human Rights Act in 2004. Victoria enacted a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities in 2006. Other jurisdictions are languishing. However, the A.C.T.’s Act and Victoria’s Charter are substandard and need to include every resident as described thus far. The processes underwriting their representations and the access to adequate representation must be guaranteed by an overarching human rights act.

A federal human rights act can wind back the dramatic erosion of civil liberties during the last quarter-century, which has now diminished rights and privacy to the once unimaginable. Human rights and responsibilities are intertwined and are not separate as propagandists would have us believe.

The human rights act which I would be proud of is the one that ensures protections and inalienable rights to citizens, residents of all categorical types, refugees and asylum seekers. More than 40,000 citizens and residents are incarcerated in over one hundred jails and their rights should not be diminished once incarcerated. But sadly, this is what occurs.

Most Australians do not know that the incarcerated are denied Medicare and are not easily entitled to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The result is substandard health care – primary, secondary and allied – and unnatural deaths in custody, suicide, many coming out of the carceral experience worse than when they in and many more suiciding or dying unnaturally within the first-year post-release. Many of us have been calling for prisoner rights for decades, not just limited to Medicare, the PBS and the NDIS.

A human rights act can extend the age of criminal responsibility to 14 and I have written widely on this over the decades. Children are children and we must understand for many the unfairnesses and disadvantages they have been born into and work psychosocially to nurture and transform their lives. I have long argued for the abolition of children’s prisons. Many are aware of the looming class action against the Western Australian Government over the Banksia Hill children’s prison. The testimonies I have been assisting in collecting from all over Western Australia are harrowing and heavy the heart.

Furthermore, in my view, a human rights act must entitle every citizen and resident to social security payments when needed — no one should be left behind. But more than a million residents are not eligible for support payments and this, in my view, is a political and moral abomination.

Other considerations for inclusion, but which can be legislated separately if it means delays to the advent of a federal human rights act, are a basic universal wage to everyone so everyone is born into some semblance of fairness and advantage. No one should be homeless in any form and the right to housing, if we believe in “society”, should be ensured for everyone – citizen and resident – and therefore each jurisdiction would be compelled to ensure adequate social and public housing.

The Productivity Commission, without fail in its every annual report, argues the most concerning issues as the lack of public housing and the denial of support payments. In my view, these are human rights abuses.

Lastly, I would like to suggest caps on parliamentary tenure. We cannot guarantee expertise in our parliaments, but we can reduce the power imbalances, the influence of lobbyists, the pernicious and mostly unseen corruption by capping parliamentary tenure in the House of Representatives to two terms and in the Senate to one term. My definition of political “careerists” are individuals who seek re-election. Politics should be a calling.

As I conclude this piece, I am readying to attend a tribunal to represent, advocate and hopefully arbitrate the right of a long-term Australian resident to be released from an immigration detention centre, that he is not deported and he and his family should not be separated.

Gerry Georgatos, the son of CALD migrants, is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He has a Master in Human Rights Education and a Master in Social Justice Advocacy & Civil Rights Arbitration. He is the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP).

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