It was with some interest but little expectation of a level playing-field that I attended the opening Melbourne session of the national Human Rights Consultation Committee’s roundtable meetings.
Although the majority of participants were avid supporters of a national bill or charter of human rights, the conduct of the meeting and the performance of some of the wiser heads were encouraging.
The chairman, Fr Frank Brennan, appeared quite open-minded about whether we need a charter of human rights in Australia; but his associate, Mary Kostakidis, did not bother to hide her enthusiasm.
My own table included a human rights lawyer, an adult undergraduate student in the human rights degree course at RMIT University, three welfare officers from one local government area, and others similarly disposed to a charter – leaving me outnumbered, to say the least.
Speakers in the plenary session were more typically espousing hobby-horses which they believed a charter might assist, but a courteous hearing was given to more sceptical contributions.
Babette Francis of Endeavour Forum blew away the claims of an Islamic woman who sought a national charter to aid her opposition to the war on terror, while Peter Stevens of FamilyVoice Australia warned of the obstacles which such a charter would present to parliamentary government.
Robert Ward of the Australian Christian Lobby bluntly pointed out that the Victorian charter had expressly removed the rights of the unborn, the most vulnerable members of society.
It was also encouraging that other speakers were sceptical about the capacity of a written charter to change society, and asked about balancing the burgeoning rights culture with more awareness of our own responsibilities.