Does Australia need a Bill of Rights?

20 DECEMBER 2006

Australia is now the only major English-speaking country that has not adopted a Bill of Rights and this has led to suggestions that Australia is a human rights “backwater”.

Australia is now the only major English-speaking country that has not adopted a Bill of Rights and this has led to suggestions that Australia is a human rights “backwater”.
 
A recently published book co-edited by Professor Tom Campbell, Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University (CSU), largely rejects these claims and explores the public debate about whether the Commonwealth of Australia ought to have a Bill of Rights and if so, what sort?
 
The book – Protecting Rights Without a Bill of Rights – Institutional Performance and Reform in Australia – is comprised of 14 essays by leading law and political science academics who consider the question of an Australian Bill of Rights from a range of viewpoints.
 
“The book shows alternative ways to promote rights in opposition to giving power to the courts to override legislation,” Professor Campbell said. With a bill of rights which is interpreted and applied by courts, this means is that courts could undermine the tradition of democracy which tries to ensure the political and moral equality of all citizens within the Australian system of government.
 
“Some argue that because the Commonwealth doesn’t have a Bill of Rights it is a sign that Australia doesn’t take human rights seriously, and so some overseas commentators regard this as a defect. We argue that having a Bill of Rights could harm our democracy if unelected judges are able to overturn legislation passed by parliament.
 
“We could have a Bill of Rights, but it should be a guide to political conduct. For example, it could be useful to many of the parliamentary Select Committees which examine a range of issues that impact on human rights, or for ‘beefing up’ the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
 
“To some extent we see this happening in the Australian Capital Territory where its Human Rights Act requires the executive administration to take account of human rights in its business and limits the extent of interference by the courts,” Professor Campbell said.
 
Professor Campbell’s co-editors are Professor Jeffrey Goldsworthy, Professor of Law at Monash University, and Ms Adrienne Stone, who is now Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne.
 
This book is the result of an Australian Research Council grant.

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