Human rights charter a “Pandora’s Box”: Porter

22 Apr 2009

By The Record

WA Attorney-General says proposed bill of rights a bad idea.                                                     

WA Attorney-General Christian Porter

By Anthony Barich

AN Australian bill or charter of rights would open a “Pandora’s Box” of
interpretations of words and phrases by unelected and unaccountable
courts, WA Attorney General Christian Porter has told a debate at
Murdoch University on April 2.
In the debate, former WA Attorney General Jim McGinty, who announced
his retirement the next day, said that the right to life for the unborn
should not be mentioned in a human rights charter as the issue has been
resolved in parliament already, as was the case, he said, when WA’s
then-Labor Government launched its own draft Human Rights Bill in 2007.
Mr McGinty said that for the purposes of a human rights charter, “life
begins at birth”, so that the human rights debate is not “hijacked by
an abortion debate”.
He also said that such a charter would not be a “back door” through
which to push other agendas, and dismissed the idea that a federal
charter of rights could strike down a State’s code of rights. He said
that while Australia is a signatory to the United Nations’ Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, it is not always reflected in Australian
laws; an Australian charter of rights would give the rights a higher
Mr McGinty said a bill of rights would breed a culture of respect for
human rights, as has happened in Victoria and ACT, but said that
Victorian Parliament’s recent Abortion Law Reform Bill was not an
example of that State’s bill of rights’ failure to protect human
rights, as the bill of rights works on the notion that life begins at
birth, not from conception.
He said such a bill of rights would also breed a culture of respect in
the way beaureaucrats deal with social services, especially those
affecting the marginalised.
But Mr Porter said that examples in Britain, the ACT and Victoria have
shown that a charter of rights allows parliamentary legislation to be
“read down” so it’s original intention is suppressed so as to be
meaningless, and it’s happening increasingly.
Mr Porter said rights are always in conflict according to subjectivity,
so such issues are best left in the hands of parliaments, otherwise
“you give up parliament’s rights to pick and choose policy outcomes,”
he said.
When asked what would stop parliaments from re-legislating so laws are
less ambiguous, Mr Porter said such a system would create a mess, as
parliaments would keep needing to re-draft legislation. And by enacting
a charter of rights, parliaments would also be binding themselves and
future parliaments to such a system.
The Christian Democratic Party backed Mr Porter’s concerns about a bill
of rights’ imprecise language, saying in its submission to the NHRC
Committee that a Bill of Rights, by definition, uses “broad, imprecise
language that makes it difficult for the courts to interpret
“The outcome could be favourable to some groups and detrimental to
others. As a result, not all would be treated impartially under the
law,” the CDP statement said. A typical example of this, the CDP said,
is the Draft Human Rights Bill issued by the then Attorney-General, Mr
Mr Porter added that a country that has a charter of rights is not
immune to bad law, using the example of the US’ former policy of
segregation, despite its founding fathers’ bill of rights in place.
In the Federal Government’s current consultation process, the National
Human Rights Consultation Committee is asking the Australian community:
– Which human rights (including corresponding responsibilities) should be protected and promoted?
– Are these human rights currently sufficiently protected and promoted?
– How could Australia better protect and promote human rights?

 National Human Rights Consultation

The Federal Government’s human rights consultation process comes to Perth next month.

Submission information can be found at

Dates for public consultation sessions:

12 May 2009    12pm – 2pm    Duxton Hotel, 1 St Georges Terrace, Perth
Capacity: 200    must register

12 May 2009    6pm – 8pm    Duxton Hotel, 1 St Georges Terrace, Perth
Capacity: 200    must register

13 May 2009    12pm – 2pm    Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Racing Club, Meldrum Ave Kalgoorlie
Capacity: 150    must register

13 May 2009    12pm – 2pm    Abbey Beach, Resort, 595 Bussell Highway
Capacity: 100    must register

14 May 2009    12pm – 2pm    Queens Park Theatre, Cnr Cathedral Ave Maitland St
Capacity: 150    must register

14 May 2009    12pm – 2pm    Ashburton Shire Hall,
Capacity: 100    must register

31 May 2009    TBA    TBA    TBA