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It’s time to talk about rights protection in South Australia

Opinion

South Australia desperately needs greater protection for human rights, to safeguard the community against bad laws and restore confidence in politics, writes Sarah Moulds.

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This week, the Queensland Human Rights Bill 2018 passed that state’s parliament. It sets out 23 human rights, such as freedom of expression and a right to education, that must be observed in government decision-making. It requires the parliament to turn its mind to human rights principles when drafting legislation.

The bill preserves the right of the Queensland parliament to pass laws that abrogate the protected human rights, but makes sure that they have turned their mind to the rights issues arising from the laws that they are debating and passing.

Taken together, the bill aims to ensure that respect for human rights is embedded in law and policy-making.

South Australia remains without any human rights framework to guide government decision-making, or to protect the rights and freedoms of the most vulnerable in our community.

For too long, South Australia has shied away from an honest conversation about rights protection, preferring instead to watch with alarm as individuals and whole communities suffer from poorly thought through policies or badly made laws.

With public trust in elected representatives at an all-time low, it’s time to start a real conversation with the community about what rights protection should look like here, and take the first steps towards a model that builds upon the state’s proud history as an innovator in legal reform.

Some say the Queensland legislation is flawed, because it might open the floodgates for litigation again government decision makers. Others say it does not go far enough, by allowing Parliament to override its key principles if it does so with clear intent.

Whatever your view, the bill has prompted a debate about how to improve the quality of lawmaking and government decision-making in Queensland, and a conversation about what rights and freedoms are important to the Queensland community.

This debate has helped highlight the groups in the community that are consistently missing out on having a voice in policies or decisions that affect them. It has also drawn attention to the urgent need to ensure government departments that make decisions about people’s health, education, housing and social services act fairly and transparently.

South Australia desperately needs to have the same conversation. Our government departments often struggle to demonstrate that they consider the needs and rights of the individuals in a consistent and fair way.

On many occasions, our publicly-funded aged care services and hospitals have failed to show respect for the rights and dignity of those in their care. Our elected representatives don’t always prioritise our rights to clean water and safe housing, or consider the impact of their policies on those of us without jobs, or facing violence and abuse in our own homes.

And our parliamentarians don’t always take the time to carefully check that the laws they are passing are not having unintended consequences that detract from people’s freedoms, or impact on their rights.

We need something more when it comes to rights protection in this state, and it is time to start getting practical about what we can change to give those that have been suffering a voice in the game.

South Australia has never been proud to be seen as a ‘follower’ of the eastern states when it comes to law reform, and nor should it be. Our state has a proud history of doing things our own way, and inspiring others with our creative responses to legal and social challenges. These aspects of the South Australian character should guide us when it comes to rights protection – but we must start somewhere, and we must start soon.

Perhaps we will discover a better way to formulate a shared statement of rights, responsibilities or values that South Australians share and want respected. Perhaps we can try new models for ensuring government decision-making and lawmaking in parliament considers the impact on the dignity, wellbeing and freedom of all South Australians.

We don’t need a courts-heavy model, or a lawyers’ picnic. But we do need a conversation about rights and we need it now.

I urge our history-making first female Attorney-General Vickie Chapman to take the lead on this issue, in her own way and in her own style.

And if we do it right, we might just help to address some of the disillusionment and distrust that characterised politics and public debate in 2018, and start the year with a positive focus and a common project to benefit us all.

Dr Sarah Moulds is a lecturer at the University of South Australia’s Law School, with teaching and research interests in the area of public law, administrative law, anti-discrimination law and human rights.

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