How most Australians do human rights without a Human Rights Act

A sparkling, erudite and funny lecture last Thursday 5 July from the Chief Justice of Australia, exploring how the Australian system with a constitution, but without a Bill of Rights/Human Rights Act, seeks to deliver human rights protection – thanks to the Administrative Law Bar Association and the Angl0-Australasian Law Society. I shall try to summarise the differences, though, rather like the pre-HRA UK position, Australian human rights protection is a subtle one and a difficult one to explain in a short post. Particularly for a Pom. So I am in part throwing down a challenge to our Australian readers (up until this point, at least, quite a few) to comment on what follows.

The constitutional framework  is all important. There are three major differences between this and the UK “constitution”. The first is the presence of a written constitution over 100 years old, and amendable only by referendum. The second is a federal system laid down by that constitution. Out of that arrangement comes a separation of powers between judiciary, legislature, and executive, and also between the Commonwealth (i.e, the federation) and each State, taken against the background of general common law principles drawn from the States’ shared colonial history. And the third is the lack of any substantive human rights instrument applicable to Australia as a whole.

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Three perspectives on the Bill of Rights

Three interesting press articles on proposals for a Bill of Rights:

The Northern Irish perspective - Monica McWilliams, chief commissioner for Human Rights in Northern Ireland writes in The Guardian: “The Human Rights Act is central to the constitutional DNA of the UK. It underpins the devolution settlements while simultaneously elucidating the common values of the constituent nations. It also provides a necessary platform from which the sense of autonomy that devolution brings can be further built upon.” (see our post on the subject)

The NGO perspective: Qudsi Rasheed, Legal Officer for JUSTICE, the human rights NGO, writes in The Guardian: “The Conservative party’s approach to this issue has been cloak and dagger. The commission of lawyers set up by David Cameron to consider the bill of rights has been extremely secretive and none of its work has been published. Short of vague and often contradictory statements and political rhetoric by various members of the party, there has been very little in the way of concrete proposals and suggestions.

The Australian perspective: The Australian Newspaper editorial on why the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was right to reject proposals for an Australian Bill of Rights: “The Rudd government’s decision last week to reject the idea of codifying rights is a recognition that Australia’s robust constitution, its strong parliamentary tradition of lawmaking, its independent judiciary, and its intelligent civic culture are the best protections for citizens. Far from protecting minority rights, statutory codification risked pitting the judiciary against the parliament by, in effect, becoming a third house of parliament.

Outcome of Carson v The UK is £60m pensions bill for Australians

We posted last week on Carson and Others v The United Kingdom (read judgment), in which the European Court of Human Rights rejected a claim that UK pensioners living abroad should have their pensions index-linked (i.e., that they be raised in line with inflation).

It turns out that it is not just the UK, or indeed Europe, being affected by the long reach of the ECtHR. Alison Steed in The Daily Telegraph reports that the Australian Government are footing the bill for 170,000 ex-pat British pensioners living there. They have said in response to the judgment:

“The Australian government believes this policy is discriminatory. We have been actively lobbying the UK government on this issue… This policy continues to place an increasing burden on all Australian taxpayers, as the Australian government picks up the tab for around 170,000 UK pensioners who also receive means-tested Australian pensions – estimated at about A$100 million (£60 million) per year in additional social security payments.”

Australia ended its social security agreement with the UK in 2001 in light of this issue, which affects around 500,000 ex-pat UK pensioners living worldwide.

Read more:

  • 28 March 2010 post
  • The ECtHR judgment
  • Our case summary of Carson; Reynolds v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (May 2005 – House of Lords, 2003 – Court of Appeal)
  • Media coverage of the Carson judgment in The Guardian and on the BBC website