Paul Keating once claimed that our Constitution was imposed on us by the British Foreign Office.
In fact, the Constitution was drafted in Australia, by Australians and approved by the Australian people. When we asked the British to give it legal effect, the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, overrode Colonial Office advice to do so
without any change.
Above all, he wanted the Privy Council to be the final court of appeal for all the empire. A compromise was reached, but Chamberlain was strongly criticised by his British colleagues for requiring even this change.
Appeals to the Privy Council were gradually reduced, and finally abolished in 1986. Yet a parallel process for reviewing Australian laws and government practice, as well as the hearing of individuals' complaints, has surreptitiously sprung up
without the consent of the Australian people.
This is the panoply of committees set up under various United Nations treaties. Unlike the situation in the United States, treaties can be signed and ratified without parliamentary approval, although a process for parliamentary scrutiny is now
Nevertheless, it has been possible for a treaty to be entered into without even the knowledge of Parliament, the government party or most members of Cabinet!
The most glaring example was when Australians saw, on television, the signing of the hitherto secret Keating-Soeharto Defence Pact.
The result of all this is that Australia has entered into many more treaties than even the United States, the global superpower.
UN human rights treaties were originally attempts to agree on internationally accepted standards, those already in existence in the world's leading democracies. These, of course, include Australia, a founder member and one who has done more to
fight tyranny than most.
More recently, some have gone further, and include, at times, the agendas of particular lobbies which are unable to have them accepted domestically through the democratic process. In other words, if the people will not accept your agenda, get
it in through the back door.
As broad statements of principle, these treaties are normally acceptable as targets for those people who have the misfortune to live under less democratic and more authoritarian governments. If they are now to be treated by the committees as
if they were surrogate bills of rights targeted principally at democratic States, then they suffer from exactly the same weaknesses as domestic bills of rights.
Bills of rights are unnecessary in countries such as Australia where rights are very well protected. Or they are no more than window-dressing in those countries where they are in practice denied, sometimes spectacularly so. Containing general
statements, they lack precision for their application.
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