New research on the human rights culture in the ACT

In developing the Australian Capital Territory’s Human Rights Act 2004, the Bill of Rights Consultative Committee argued that ‘its primary purpose should be to encourage the development of a human rights-respecting culture.’ But what does a ‘human rights-respecting culture’ look like?

Our latest article, which emerges from the larger project on drugs and human rights, considers how a ‘culture of human rights’ is defined in research into human rights charters across Australian jurisdictions. Commonly a culture of human rights is defined as a pattern of assumptions, shared and taught, that human rights must be considered and respected. However, this definition overlooks the unstable, impermanent, and changeable dimensions of culture, which is continually produced and reproduced through various practices.

Through a focus on the consideration of human rights in the process of drafting and scrutinising legislation in the ACT, we argue that we need new ways of understanding how cultures of human rights evolve and are maintained, including the ways in which shared meanings, values, and beliefs are constantly changing and can often be used to justify human rights infringements, particularly against marginalised populations.

First, we identify and explore a culture of differentiated rights, in which private members report lacking the same resources of Ministers to undertake rights assessments of the legislation they propose, thereby diminishing the potential quality, rigour and seriousness with which rights are regarded in the formation of legislation. We argue that it may be prudent for the ACT Government to re-examine the issue of requiring statements of compatibility with human rights for private members’ bills, in line with recommendations from the Human Rights Commissioner. Though, based on our interviews with private members in other jurisdictions, we should be cautious to assume that introducing this reform in the ACT will lead to better human rights and freedoms in laws, as opposed to better justifications for human rights limitations.

Second, we explore the politicised culture of rights, in which some voices and perspectives dominate, or through which rights assessments of legislation are highly politicised. The influence of party politics on rights assessments appears to be a particularly striking feature of the human rights scrutiny process, and one that might need to be addressed. Future work might consider whether this could be addressed by reforms to the composition of the committees, or the extent of public exposure and scrutiny of the committee’s work, including through increased use of public inquiries. Here, however, we recommend that the ACT Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Administration and Procedure undertake an inquiry into the committee structure of the parliament to assess whether the standing committees are meeting the aspirations for transparency and accountability and the aspiration of a human rights culture.

In conclusion, the ACT is often portrayed as an exemplar of rights culture and has influenced the adoption of parliamentary human rights scrutiny regimes by its Australian counterparts. However, the account that emerges within our article offers a different view; one in which parliamentary human rights scrutiny processes are complex, uneven, imperfect, and highly politicised. It is a portrait of a culture that is still finding its feet. You can find out more about our latest article here.