Page 3233 - Week 09 - Tuesday, 18 August 2009

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Undoubtedly, the arguments for protecting economic, social and cultural rights are strong. It was apparent, from submissions received in the one-year review of the act, that this is an area of wide interest. When I tabled the report of the first year of operation of the act in August 2006, I noted that there had been no serious attempt to incorporate these rights into bills of rights in New Zealand, Canada or the United Kingdom. In fact, the only other legislatively comparable country with a human rights system that includes these rights is South Africa.

Economic, social and cultural rights remain largely untried and untested when it comes to legislative human rights frameworks. The government decided to defer consideration of these rights until the five-year review, when it was thought that perhaps other jurisdictions would provide a model by having had a closer look at expanding legislative regimes beyond civil and political rights. This has not been the case. The inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights would make us exceptional amongst comparable human rights jurisdictions.

It has become apparent, in giving consideration to these rights, that there needs to be further research into the potential impact of extending the protection of the Human Rights Act. Investigation and research into the ramifications of such a course of action need to be properly considered.

Decision making in relation to economic, social and cultural rights can only be made when issues about the scope and enforceability of these rights have been adequately teased out. It is anticipated that the new project will generate the first comprehensive Australian study of the potential impact of the protection of economic, social and cultural rights in a legislated bill of rights. The research and consultation will be undertaken over the next 12 months, with a report expected in the latter half of 2010.

In relation to these rights, I was privileged to have recently met with Madam Justice Yvonne Mokgoro. Justice Mokgoro is a longstanding judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and chair of the South African Law Reform Commission. The focus of Justice Mokgoro’s visit to Australia was to talk to interested Australians about human rights and, in particular, the South African experience of economic, social and cultural rights. Her visit to Australia was organised by the Human Rights Law Resource Centre in Melbourne and her Canberra leg, which included speaking with a range of people, was facilitated by the new economic, social and cultural rights project team. I understand that Justice Mokgoro also met with Father Frank Brennan from the National Human Rights Consultation Committee.

The status of economic, social and cultural rights, alongside civil and political rights, is notably an item on the agenda of Australian human rights discussion and debate. I look forward to receiving a report next year on the findings of the research project, which will meet the government’s commitment to consider economic, social and cultural rights in the context of the territory’s Human Rights Act.

Returning to the report on the first five years of the act’s operation, its recommendations require community consultation. I have asked my department to undertake a broad consultation process over the next couple of months on the recommendations that the report makes and to examine opportunities to improve the human rights regime that we have in the ACT.

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