Human Rights and Halloween


Human rights billboard Image provided by Fr Rod Bower of Gosford Anglican Church

You always have to look for the silver lining; like the Queensland Parliament introducing a Human Rights Act on the same day (31st October) that people were walking the streets dressed as ghouls and zombies, reminding us that Christmas is just 55 days away.

Christmas Island is just around the corner too – well, it’s precisely 1,550 kms north-west of Perth. But it is an Australian territory, unlike Nauru and Manus Island.

I mention human rights in the context of offshore processing of asylum seekers to make the point that Australia is one of the few democracies that does not have a so-called Bill of Rights.

Victoria and the ACT have their own Human Rights acts and Queensland’s new act will become law next year. But there is no specific Federal law. In case you did not know, Queensland’s Human Rights Act will replace a hit-and-miss system in which individual liberties are said to be protected under the constitution and by common law. The Federalists have always argued that the latter is sufficient protection to ensure freedom of speech, privacy, equality and such like. The anti-Federalists in Queensland have been quietly pushing for this new act for the last four or five years.

The subject came up more than once when former Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs was in town for Outspoken, a literary event that draws a mixed crowd of avid readers. Triggs, as one would imagine, was well aware that Queensland was considering introducing a Human Rights act and there was a bit of discussion as to what form that might take. As she mentioned at the time, she hoped this new Act would protect indigenous culture (and it does).

Queensland’s act mimics Victoria’s laws in many ways – it protects 23 human rights as basic as the right to freedom from forced work, to equality, the right to life and the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association (remember Campbell Newman’s bikie laws?).The Australian Government should make a note of this one: ‘protection from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’, in terms of refugees being kept on Nauru and Manus Island.

If this new Act is set to enhance the protection and privacy of individuals, will this extend to trick and treaters coming down the driveway, uninvited? This did not happen in our street, the Halloween revellers opting to approach only those houses suitably adorned with spooky lights, cobwebs, pumpkins and other faux-accoutrements of a distinctly American tradition.

Protecting the privacy of individuals should surely extend to preventing real estate agents, politicians, Clive Palmer and the NBN from shoving unwanted solicitations in your letterbox?

Should it not also cover the telephone ringing at 6.50pm with the chatter of a call centre in the background and a long pause while someone realises yours is the next cold call they must attend to (by which time you have hung up).

ABC News provided a handy guide to the new Act, which meant that although I downloaded it, I do not necessarily have to wade my way through all 88 pages of the Act. The main objects are to:

  • to protect and promote human rights; and
  • to help build a culture in the Queensland public sector

that respects and promotes human rights; and

  • to help promote a dialogue about the nature, meaning

and scope of human rights.”

Under this new Act, the Anti-Discrimination Commission will be re-named the Queensland Human Rights Commission and as such receive complaints from the public. The specifics of the Act ensure that the Parliament, the government and more importantly, the bureaucracy that administers Queensland’s laws will have to comply with them.

Dan Rogers from Caxton Legal told the ABC the new act would provide a broad spectrum of individual rights. He said Victoria and the ACT had benefited from having similar legislation for over a decade.

“When government departments deliver services, they’re more likely to comply with our fundamental human rights.”

Rogers gave examples of when these rights may be compromised (cameras recording conversations or abuse of search powers by police and government inspectors).

Queensland Council of Civil Liberties president Michael Cope told the ABC that Australian States were some of the last in the world not yet be covered by a human rights act.

“We know from history that democracies can quickly change from being democracies to something else. It only took Hitler six or seven years to transform Germany.”

Predictably, the Queensland Opposition described the new Act as a ‘distraction’ from the real issue (the economy) and harped on about the time and money spent implementing the new Act. (Victoria’s Human Rights Act has been estimated to cost 50c per person, per year).

Most democracies have a bill of rights of some type and 192 member States have become signatories to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights since it was established in 1948. There are eight notable hold-outs: South Africa, Belorussia, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Saudi Arabia, Yugoslavia and Russia.

Since we mentioned Nauru in the context of Australia’s decision to use the tiny island as a holding depot for asylum seekers and refugees, here’s what we know about its place in the world.

Of the nine core United Nations human rights treaties, Nauru, which has been a member since 1999, has ratified or acceded to four of them. They include the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture. In response to recommendations from other States and human rights monitoring bodies, Nauru ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in June 2011. Just so we know.

The UN has gone to a lot of trouble to set up a portal to teach children the basics of human rights. It’s not a bad place for adults to digest a summary of the obvious and not-so obvious things we regard as rights.

Item 19 is of particular interest to me and my 27 readers (and an old blue heeler called Herbie who chases his tail when he hears FOMM go ‘ping’ in the inbox):

We all have the right to make up our own minds, to think what we like, to say what we think, and to share our ideas with other people.

That would be of small comfort to journalists jailed last year by regimes that do not brook public dissent. A record 262 journalists were jailed in 2017, amid an aggressive crackdown by government authorities, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In this free-ranging discussion about human rights you may have noticed my own bias creeping in about Halloween. I just do not care for the pervasive infiltration of American ‘culture’ into the Australian-way-of-life. Pumpkins were meant to be cooked and eaten, mate, by me or the dog.

And don‘t get me started on those Council workers cluttering up the only roundabout in the village with a truck and crane adorning the Flame Tree with shiny Christmas baubles and fake presents.

“Mate, you’re infringing on my right to freedom of movement,” the grumpy septuagenarian hollered out the car window.

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