After a promising beginning, the proposal for a Tasmanian Charter of Rights has stalled.
In 2006 the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute (TLRI) was asked by the State Government to conduct an inquiry into a state Charter of Rights. After receiving substantially more submissions than similar inquiries in other states, 94 per cent of which supported a Charter, the TLRI issued a report strongly endorsing reform.
While the TLRI supported a statutory rather than constitutional Charter, consistent with existing charters in Britain, New Zealand, and on continental Australia, it recommended that state courts be given unprecedented powers to remedy as well as investigate human rights breaches.
It also took the unprecedented step of recommending that a Tasmanian Charter enshrine social, cultural, and economic rights, as well as civil and political rights.
Tasmania was on track to achieve a world-class Charter of Rights to match its powerful anti-discrimination and relationship laws. Then, suddenly, the momentum stopped.
First the state government said it would seek “national consistency” on the issue before proceeding. Then the Hobart Mercury launched a stinging attack on a State Charter as an inappropriate way to guarantee human rights. Both arguments warrant a closer examination because they come from sources which continue to express strong support for human rights principles.
The Mercury made much of Tasmania’s transformation from having the most oppressive laws on same-sex relationships in Australia to having some of the fairest.
It believes this transformation shows Tasmania’s parliamentary democracy and civil society are strong enough not to need a Charter of Rights:
Tasmania has an honourable record on progressive social legislation (like) establishing a relationships registry to give legal status to same-sex couples. This has been achieved through the Westminster system’s wonderful capacity for reform and renewal, without the need for a handful of lawyers to decide what is best. Where there have been wrongs that needed righting, such as discriminatory homosexual laws, it has been done with vigorous public debate.
Yes, public debate was critical to achieving reform, even if “vigorous” is a nice way of saying it was sometimes violent.
Yes, Parliament did finally assent to reform, even if it took 20 years, ten governments, eight bills, three public inquiries and numberless rallies, meetings, letters, badges and posters to get there.
But there have also been critical moments during Tasmanian gay rights debates which provide a compelling argument for a Tasmanian Charter of Rights, not against it.
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