Is the parliamentary dialogue working?

Most of VEOHRC’s Charter 2007 report card was about various Victorians’ preparations for 2008. The exception was Chapter 8, on ‘Parliament and the 2007 legislative agenda.’ Parliament House was unique in 2007 as one of the only spaces where the Charter was actually operational. (The others were VEOHRC’s own offices and the ghost of s6(2)(b).)  Parliamentarians introducing bills had to table Statements of Compatibility. And SARC had to report on each bill’s incompatibility with human rights.

Chapter 8 reviews the statements and SARC comments and, especially, the interaction between them. Here’s the key finding:

While SARC raised concerns about the human rights compatibility of a number of bills during 2007, the Commission is aware of only one BIll that was amended in response to these concerns.

SARC’s independent vetting of the human rights compatibility of Bills is a critical means by which understanding of the meaning and implications of human rights will be developed in Victoria. While the Commission appreciates that SARC and Ministers will often ‘agree to disagree’, we would expect to see evidence of SARC’s concerns being taken account – or at least a robus parliamentary exchange in relation to these matters.

To get a handle on the numbers of occassions where there was an agreement to disagree, the Commission found that ‘SARC assessed Charer compatibility differently to the Minister’ for 23 bills. The ‘one Bill‘ that was amended in response to a SARC report concerned a drafting error that crept in to the definition of incest in 2006. [Hi there folks who like to google the word ‘incest‘! And, bye bye.]

Parliament is sitting right now and the lower house will this week debate the Constitution Amendment (Judicial Pensions) Bill 2007. As I posted earlier, the Minister and SARC had a big disagreement on this bill. The Statement of Compatibility said that this bill was all good, removing current marital status discrimination from the Constitution. SARC agreed that most of the bill was good, but argued that its transitional arrangements (extended the reversionary spousal pension for retired officers to opposite-sex but not same-sex partners) may be incompatible with the Charter’s equality rights and that a provision removing the judicial pension for partners who acquire a new domestic partner may be threaten judicial independence and therefore engage all Victorians’ rights to a fair hearing.

The Attorney-General has, indeed, circulated amendments to the Bill, but they are all technical, updating the name of the (then pending) Relationships Act 2007 to 2008. That’s it. We won’t know any response by the Attorney-General to SARC’s questions until the next Alert DIgest in May. For now, further dialogue about these rights issues will be played out on the pages of Hansard. Tuesday’s sitting showed that the Opposition were pushing the judicial independence points (without reference to the Charter, of course) but the discrimination issue only gets a brief mention. This time next year, we’ll be reading VEOHRC’s views on whether this example of the dialogue is in accordance with the Charter’s aims.

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