Wednesday, 13 May 2020
Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights; Report
On behalf of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, I present the following reports: Human rights scrutiny report 4 of 2020, incorporating a dissenting report, and Human rights scrutiny report of COVID-19 legislation: report 5 of 2020.
Reports made parliamentary papers in accordance with standing order 39(e).
by leave—I am pleased to present the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights' fourth and fifth scrutiny reports of 2020, which were tabled out of session on 9 and 29 April 2020 respectively. These reports contain a technical examination of legislation with Australia's obligations under international human rights law.
Report 4 of 2020 contains the committee's consideration of 14 bills introduced into the parliament between 24 February to 5 March 2020, and legislative instruments registered on the Federal Register of Legislation between 6 February and 4 March 2020. It contains the committee's concluding comments in relation to 13 bills and four instruments. Regrettably, half of the committee, comprising all members from the Australian Labor Party and the Greens, issued dissenting comments to the committee's conclusions regarding the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity No. 2) Bill 2019. The dissenting members concluded a number of measures in the bill are likely to be incompatible with the right to freedom of association. I encourage my fellow members, the government and others to examine the full report, including the dissenting comments.
The committee's scrutiny report 5 of 2020 is dedicated to an examination of legislation made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes consideration of COVID-19 related bills tabled in the parliament between 23 March and 8 April 2020, and legislative instruments registered on the Federal Register of Legislation between 21 January and 21 April 2020.
In this scrutiny report, the committee provides an overview of Australia's international human rights obligations in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a particular focus on the operation of the Biosecurity Act 2015. The committee has found that legislation developed in response to the pandemic is likely to promote and protect the rights to life and health, noting that the right to life requires Australia to take positive measures to protect life and the right to health requires Australia to take steps to prevent, treat and control epidemic diseases. However, the committee has also noted that many of the steps taken in response to the pandemic may also engage and limit a number of other human rights, including the right to privacy, freedom of movement, liberty, and equality and non-discrimination. These rights may be permissibly limited, where limitations pursue a legitimate objective—keeping people alive—and are rationally connected to that objective, and are proportionate. Further information is required to assess this in relation to 17 legislative instruments and one bill, as set out in this report. I encourage my fellow members, the government and others to examine this important report closely.
The role of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee during this unprecedented crisis is even more important than usual. When governments all around the world are restricting the freedoms of their citizens, including the Australian government, it is crucial that laws designed to restrict those freedoms are thoroughly scrutinised in a bipartisan manner. It is also important that when these restrictions are no longer necessary—hopefully—the freedoms and human rights of Australians are returned, and that any tardiness in so returning is called out.
The committee will continue to regularly report on all legislation, both COVID-19 related and other legislation, during these challenging times. With these comments, I commend the committee's Report 4 of 2020 and Report 5 of 2020 to the House.
by leave—Today I rise to speak on scrutiny reports 4 and 5 of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights 2020. It is a privilege to be a member of this committee and to contribute to ensuring that all bills and legislative instruments passed by this parliament are consistent with Australia's commitment to human rights. This work is especially important at the current time, given the nation's fight against coronavirus which has resulted in the most comprehensive restriction of liberties that many of us have ever experienced. For many weeks now, Australians have had their movements constrained, businesses have closed or gone into hibernation and five million people have stopped working. The toll has been great, with the necessary separation of family and friends. The challenges posed by the coronavirus have clearly demonstrated circumstances where the limitation of certain human rights, such as the curtailing of our freedoms, is not only acceptable but a moral and legal imperative. It has shown that in certain situations some human rights need to take precedence over others for the benefit of the nation.
For the better part of this year the scales have rightly tipped in favour of public health concerns in an attempt to preserve the right to life and health. This is an extraordinarily difficult balancing act made all the more difficult by the reproductive rate of this pandemic. I have many people in Mallee who have expressed their gratitude for the exemplary leadership shown by this government—particularly the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Minister for Health—and the leaders of state and territory governments as well as the chief and deputy medical officers for their swift action in responding to this unprecedented crisis. I also want to acknowledge our brave healthcare and aged-care workers and all other essential frontline service and personnel who continue to risk their health and wellbeing to keep us safe.
The reports introduced today contain the committee's consideration of a number of bills and legislative instruments introduced to parliament this year. Report 4 of 2020 considers 14 bills introduced into the parliament between 24 February and 5 March and legislative instruments registered on the Federal Register of Legislation between 6 February and 4 March. It contains the committee's concluding comments in relation to 13 bills and four instruments, including the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 and the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019.
Report 5 of 2020 is dedicated to an examination of legislation made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which I will focus on today. This report includes consideration of COVID-19 related bills tabled in parliament between 23 March and 8 April and the legislative instruments listed on the Federal Register of Legislation between 21 January and 21 April. A number of the measures considered in Report 5 of 2020 have taken under powers set out in the Biosecurity Act 2015. This act is the primary means for the Australian government to manage the risk of diseases entering Australia and causing harm to human health. The act can grant the Minister for Health extraordinary powers if a human biosecurity emergency exists. Such an emergency was declared in Australia in relation to COVID-19 on 18 March 2020. By virtue of their implementation we can already see how these measures present unique considerations for this parliament and the human rights committee. Many of the measures introduced through the Biosecurity Act 2015 and through parliament engage with human rights in significant ways. Such limitations may be permissible if they are shown to pursue a legitimate objective, are rationally connected to that objective and are proportionate in achieving that objective. The limitations imposed by a number of measures considered by the committee are by-products of the intent to promote and protect the right to life and health for individuals residing in this country.
The preservation of life is clearly a legitimate objective, but questions remain as to the necessity and proportionality of the measures seeking to achieve this aim. Given the significance of these questions and the potential impact these measures may have on human rights, the committee has sought further advice from the relevant ministers in relation to measures outlined in the report before making concluding remarks about their compatibility with Australia's human rights commitments.
As Australians and other permanent and temporary residents continue to be tested by the coronavirus and the restrictions we have put in place, questions surrounding human rights will continue to prevail. For this reason, ministers are considering these questions seriously and will feed back to the committee in due course. I look forward to contributing further to the work of the human rights committee as we navigate these difficult circumstances.