Chartered waters

The Australian governance stream of the 2020 summit has ‘expressed strong support for a statutory Bill or Charter of Rights, with minority support for a parliamentary Charter.’ Apart from what is (surely) the last gasp for the ‘Bill… of Rights’ langauge in Australia,  there are no surprises here. The media certainly picked up on the charter proposal – they’d probably written this stuff in advance –  although the Republic discussion completely overshadowed it. Interestingly, both the republic and the charter seem to have been the responsibility of a single branch of the governance stream: ‘Rights and Responsibilities’ (sigh). Disappointingly, there’s no hint so far that anyone sees (or is willing to push for) a link between these two issues.

What is also disappointing, and a little surprising, is the lack of language about how such a charter of rights will come about (a contrast to the discussoin of the republic.) This is meant to be a summit of ideas and there’s no way that a mere proposal to have a statutory charter can qualify as that. Reports that Rudd was worried about the lacklustre nature of the governance discussion and got McKew to pep things up adds to my concern. I assume – or at least hope – that some genuinely new ideas about how to get a charter enacted and maybe how it will operate in the federal sphere were discussed and sifted, and that the final report, whenever it emerges, will be more interesting than this stuff.

That being said, there were two interesting tweaks on the charter idea in the initial report that I’m sure that Rudd will seize on. First, the Australian Governance stream’s proposal ‘stressed the importance of Indigenous involvement in this process – as an integral part of the path to reconciliation.’ Strangely, this idea doesn’t appear in the Indigenous stream document, which instead focussed on property rights and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. Second, another stream – “Strengthening Communities and Supporting Working Families’ (and denigrating non-working families? Sucked in mum and dad!) – also came out in favour of a charter:

This stream proposed the development and implementation of both a Charter of Rights (like the Future of Australian Governance stream) and a National Action Plan for Social Inclusion. The plan to increase social inclusion and combat poverty should be developed in consultation with the community. It should include evidence-based goals and measurable targets. The ambition and scope of the Plan should reflect economic analysis of the return on investment produced by improving social inclusion. Issues of social inclusion should be considered in a wide range of policy areas.

These two developments could be understood in three different ways. First, as a call for rights of a particular sort to be included in the federal charter. Both ideas fit with rights that are in the Victorian Charter:

17(1) Families are the fundamental group unit of society and are entitled to be protected by society and the State.

19(2) Aboriginal persons hold distinct cultural rights and must not be denied the right, with other members of their community- (a) to enjoy their identity and culture; and (b) to maintain and use their language; and (c) to maintain their kinship ties; and (d) to maintain their distinctive spiritual, material and economic relationship with the land and waters and other resources with which they have a connection under traditional laws and customs.

Second, at a call for a particular process for moving to a Charter (although it is not clear to me that either call goes beyond the community consultations that led to the statutes in the ACT and Victoria.)

Third, as an attempt to rebrand the federal charter as something other than a change in how the government (and courts) operate. I can see the political advantage (and some political dangers) of doing this, but I’m not sure how it will translate into the statute itself. I guess the failure to get more streams onto the federal charter train – rural Australia? creative Australia? Australia’s future?, to choose some that aren’t necessarily tied to the socio-economics rights question – is a missed opportunity in this regard.

(Finally, to follow up on my previous non-Charter side-bar post, I think that the last-minute revision to the Republic proposal – to have plebicites before any constitutional referendum – is a mistake. I don’t think it will kill the debate about ‘which model’, but will heighten it, with the voters being told that a ‘yes’ vote will give carte blanche to the government to pursue whatever model it wants. And I think the voters will recognise a plebicite for what it is: an expensive opinion poll. Unlike a constitutional referendum – which will be model specific – a ‘no’ vote in the plebicite will kill the republic issue altogether. Stand by for a simple ‘no’ campaign: vote no to put an end to this waste of time and to get the government to focus back on the economy. The 2020 summit may, alas, be a turning point in this debate after all.)

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