In the aftermath of the election, it’s striking how much the dullness of the campaign reflected the fact that a lot of issues weren’t even debated. Labor’s proposal for a Charter of Rights provides one example. From Labor’s viewpoint, those who liked the idea were probably already aware of it, so there was no payoff from pushing it hard. And while the culture warriors would have liked nothing better than to try and make a big deal of it, even Howard could see that running against human rights would be a risky tactic, especially in view of the government’s record.
Having tried and failed to wedge Labor on rights issues (notably gay marriage), the Liberals were quiet on the topic during the campaign. Now they face the risk of being wedged themselves. The rightwing fanatics who delivered the leadership to Nelson will find it hard to back down quietly, but I can’t see Nelson himself wanting a fight on this.
As regards the substance of the issue, we had an interesting discussion a couple of years ago. The key points I took out of it were:
* Rather than a constitutional bill of rights, we need a statement of principles against which legislation and administrative acts can be tested. If the Parliament chooses to pass legislation that violates our human rights, it should declare that it is doing so.
* To my mind, this means that the Charter should focus on the protection of rights against government action. ‘Positive’ rights such as the right to a decent living standard are important, but should be pursued in different ways.
This article raises a technical question as to whether Commonwealth courts can be used to implement the Charter. Even if they can, it’s not clear that court proceedings are the best choice. However, I’ll be interested to see what commenters have to say.