The ACT opposition's shadow minister for justice, Bill Stefaniak MLA, consistently opposed the idea of a Bill of Rights for the ACT. Now that the Human Rights Act has come into force and become Australia's first Bill of Rights, he argues that the ACT needs a Bill of Responsibilities to counter its excesses. In this, he has some powerful support. Prime Minister John Howard, in a recent interview with John Laws, has also supported the idea.
Stefaniak deserves credit for going beyond the rhetoric about responsibilities by putting down a concrete proposal. In June, he introduced the Charter of Human Responsibilities Bill into the ACT Legislative Assembly that draws upon work by the InterAction council, an independent body of international political and religious leaders. With its Bill of Rights, the ACT sets an Australian first. And this Bill of Responsibilities sets another. The Assembly is one of the first, if not the first, parliament in the world to debate a Bill of Responsibilities.
The Bill was put to a vote in the Assembly last week and lacking the support of the Labor Party, was understandably defeated. While we think that the right decision was made to reject the Bill, we also recognise that there is merit in debating the concept. The InterAction council has highlighted that, "Both the rule of law and human beings depend on the readiness of everyone to act justly ... rights cannot endure without the commitment to the responsibilities that come with them". In fact, some issues that have traditionally been framed in terms of rights, particularly social, economic and cultural rights, are better understood within a framework of responsibilities.
A right to health or housing, for example, is meaningless without recognition of a responsibility by government to provide funding and other support. Significantly, international human rights conventions also refer to responsibilities in this context.
Rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin. No advocate of human rights could argue with the idea that rights can often exist in tension with each other and that the possession of rights also entails the need to exercise them responsibly.
Some aspects of the Charter of Human Responsibilities Bill should be commended. It affirms rights already protected by the Human Rights Act, such as the right to life, while in effect, also creating new rights. The Bill provides, for example, that "no-one may rob or dispossess anyone else or any group of people". The Bill also contains some serious flaws. Some of these result from the very idea of a Bill of Responsibilities, others from the drafting of the Bill itself.
One of the criticisms levied at the ACT Human Rights Act was that it was vague and uncertain. This was despite the Act drawing on International Covenants, as well as the Bills of Rights in the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand. Like any Bill of Rights, there will always be areas of contest and debate, but the ACT Human Rights Act does have the benefit of a rich and growing body of law from around the world to draw upon.
The Charter of Human Responsibilities, in attempting to prescribe a range of values that people should hold in professional and daily life, contains a broader range of ambiguous and amorphous concepts. It includes, for example, that people should be "honest and fair" in their dealings with others; that "no-one may treat another as a sex-object", and that "economic and social power should not be misused as instruments of domination". It even states, "A person must not harass, annoy or interfere with anyone else in their community, for example by not upholding the proper values of the community".
While many might support these values in principle, they introduce terms that are unknown to the law and that lack any clear definition. As such, they exist in a domestic and international context devoid of interpretive guidance. This is of particular concern given the Bill provides that these civil responsibilities would override the Human Rights Act in the event of any inconsistency.
The Charter of Human Responsibilities Bill would not be an effective legal tool. It would also be a far more radical reform than the Human Rights Act and we would question whether such a Bill is really needed in the ACT. Nevertheless, it does offer a way of continuing the debate. Open discussion about the proper balance between rights and responsibilities, as well as which rights and responsibilities we should enforce in a pluralistic society, is crucial to building community values and participation in civic society.
This article was previously published in The Canberra Times on 20 August 2004.
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