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Security, peace, dignity? The role of Victorian human rights laws

Phil* became homeless after his partner died and his house was repossessed.  He cycled through shelters and crisis accommodation, dangerous rooming houses, and the couches of friends and families.

After several months, Phil hit the jackpot and was accepted into transitional housing.  As the name suggests, transitional housing is short- to medium-term housing to assist people transition from homelessness into long-term housing.

Phil was excited to move into the house.  On the day he moved in, he was handed a lease, a set of keys and a 120-day eviction notice.  ‘It’s just how we ensure that we can evict you when we need to,’ explained his housing worker.

Phil’s joy and excitement quickly turned to fear.  He didn’t unpack his bags, as he was scared that he could be evicted at any time without any notice.

Then Phil came to see me. At the time, I was in charge of Victoria’s Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic, assisting people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness. Phil wanted some stability and certainty, and asked us to challenge the basis of his eviction notice.

Fortunately, Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities protects Victorians’ right to home.  It ensures that government authorities are not able to arbitrarily or unlawfully interfere with people’s right to home.  Issuing an eviction notice as part of the process was arbitrary, we argued, and the agency revoked Phil’s eviction notice. Phil wasn’t the only person we helped in this way, but his smile that day made him one of the most memorable.

The Charter hasn’t ended homelessness; only increased commitment from governments, business, community groups and the community will do that. But it did prevent Phil, and people like him, becoming homeless again.

People facing homelessness aren’t the only ones that have benefitted from Victoria’s Charter.  People with disabilities, people with mental illness, marginalised groups and young people have all been able to seek protection from the Charter.  Community groups, lawyers and local government have all reported increased protection and promotion of Victorians’ human rights since the Charter was implemented in 2006.

Last year, a partisan parliamentary committee inquired into the effectiveness of the Charter.  95% of the submissions to the committee called for the Charter to be strengthened or retained, and provided detailed evidence of the positive impact of the Charter.  I co-authored a submission and appeared before the committee, and told them about the 42 people, including 21 children, that we’d assisted to escape homelessness using the Charter. Other community groups and advocates had similar stories.

But despite this overwhelming evidence, the committee recommended gutting the Charter.

This week, the Baillieu Government rejected the committee’s findings.  According to the Government’s response, ‘the Government is strongly committed to the principles of human rights and considers that legislative protection for those rights provides a tangible benefit to the Victorian community’.

However, the Government has recognised there is more work to do.  It will consider adding additional rights from international human rights laws that currently aren’t included, although it has accepted the committee’s recommendation that the Charter not add economic social and cultural rights and the right of self-determination.  It has committed to strengthening the role of the Charter in parliamentary processes, including scrutinising new laws and major amendments, and removing the power of parliament to issue ‘override declarations’. These moves cement the role of parliament as ‘sovereign’ and dismiss any perception of the Charter as being ‘undemocratic’.

The controversial role of courts in protecting human rights under the Charter is subject to further review. Two cases in 2011 have shown that the role of the Courts is confusing under the current laws, and critics have expressed concerns about the role of ‘unelected judges’ and the threat of a ‘flood of litigation’. While neither of these concerns is supported by evidence from the first five years of the Charter’s operation, evidence shows that human rights are only meaningful when they are enforceable, and the role of courts and other mechanisms to ensure accountability is vital.  By reviewing how these protections can be made stronger, more effective and more efficient, the Government has the opportunity to further promote and protect the human rights of all Victorians.

The Charter isn’t perfect, but it does play an important role in protecting Victorians’ human rights. Its continued role will help people like Phil, and you and I, to live in security, peace and dignity.

* Not his real name.


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