In the Australian political discourse there are calls, from time to time, about whether or not Australia is in need of a Bill of Rights, whether it be enshrined in the Constitution of Australia or its own legislative instrument. We need a Bill of Rights, but it is likely that any move for such a protection of rights will not come on its own, but in conjunction with a future Australian republic and that is most certainly a great deal of time away from materialising.
Australia is in urgent need of a Bill of Rights, constitutional or otherwise to defend all the basic rights and freedoms which must be afforded to all human beings. Not only that, Australia needs such legal provisions to clearly express those rights which at the moment are implied or form part of the common law of the Commonwealth of Australia. Too often, because the rights we are supposed to enjoy are either implied or in common law, there is not a clear understanding of the extent to which they apply.
As I have already expressed, there are two forms that a rights bill may take, that is constitutional and legislative.
A constitutional Bill of Rights entails those basic rights and freedoms we should all experience in a liberal democracy being enshrined in the Australian Constitution. This would require a constitutional referendum where a majority of people in a majority of the states and territories vote in favour of putting rights and freedoms into our constitution.
A legislative Bill of Rights is exactly as it sounds, a piece of legislation that is passed by the parliament of the day, requiring a simple majority of parliamentarians to vote in favour of it becoming law.
The question then becomes: what form should a future Bill of Rights take? My answer, is that any future rights bill must be enshrined in our Constitution. Why is this the case? Because, like any form of law made by parliament, a legislative rights bill could indeed be rescinded for any reason, of which none are valid and therefore parliament could erode our collective rights at their whim if they chose to do so.
Now, a constitutional version of a rights bill is not without its downside either, though the downside is indeed both a positive and a negative. Because a constitutional referendum requires a majority of people in a majority of states to pass, it would be incredibly difficult to have a successful referendum (8/44 referenda have passed). However, as I said, that is also the positive, our politicians could not vote a constitutional Bill of Rights down and the people are unlikely to vote out something which they helped institute in the first place.
Now this is where it becomes tricky for the idea of a Bill of Rights to be enshrined in our Constitution any time soon. Because a constitutional rights bill is much more robust, the best chance of it passing at a referendum, would not be under its own steam as a stand-alone move. A human rights bill, forming part of our Constitution, would best be linked to a future Australian republican referendum where it would be almost certain that we would adopt an entirely new Australian Constitution.
Consequently, a new Australian Constitution, complete with human rights protections will most likely be some time away. With an ALP Government, usually strongly committed to a republic, no longer publicly talking about the idea and still two years from election and the would be next Liberal Party Prime Minister a monarchist, by my calculation, a republic and therefore Bill of Rights is inevitable but at least 10 years away.
I don’t think we can or should wait that long. The question is: can you wait? If not, get loud and get talking about it…