February 05, 2020

I rise, as Deputy Chair, to speak to the tabling of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights' Scrutiny Report 6 of 2019 (which was tabled in the Senate on the last sitting day of 2019).

This report contains a credible technical examination of legislation with Australia's obligations under international human rights law, as required under the committee's statutory mandate. It sets out the committee's consideration of 18 bills introduced into the Parliament between 16 September and 19 September 2019, 2 bills previously deferred, and legislative instruments registered on the Federal Register of Legislation between 9 August and 19 September 2019.

In this report, the committee seeks further information in relation to four bills and three instruments. This process of requesting information from the legislation proponent reflects the committee's role in establishing and maintaining a dialogue regarding the human rights implications of legislative measures. This process of dialogue contributes to the broader respect for and recognition of human rights in Australia.

In addition, the committee has made concluding remarks in relation to three bills, including the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019. In Report 4 of 2019, the committee sought information from the Minister for Home Affairs in relation to this bill. The majority committee report concluded that the repeal of the medevac laws did not breach any international human rights. However, half of the committee, comprising all members from the Australian Labor Party and the Greens, have issued a dissenting report in relation to this conclusion. We consider it regrettable that it has become necessary to prepare another dissenting report for this previously well-functioning committee.

As members no doubt know, the mandate of this important committee is to examine all bills and legislative instruments that come before either House of the Parliament for compatibility with Australia's human rights obligations under the seven international human rights treaties ratified by Australia, and to report to both Houses of the Parliament on that issue.

As members of this committee, we must never lose sight of the committee’s important mandate. This committee does not exist to be partisan; and it does not exist to rubber-stamp government policy, irrespective of the political party occupying the Treasury benches.

The legislation scrutinised in this report deserves to be properly considered by this committee through a human rights framework.

Reputable bodies have raised concerns about outcomes flowing from decisions of the Coalition Government. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has cautioned about a ‘deteriorating health situation’ in Papua New Guinea and Nauru which has 'led to significant risks of irreparable harm and loss of life'.

The Queensland State Coroner has raised concerns in relation to the death of Hamid Khazaei that ‘insufficient and transparent and accountable procedures for acting upon serious health concerns can have life-threatening and tragic consequences’. Hamid Khazaei was a 24 year old Iranian citizen who became ill while being detained on Manus Island. Throughout his time in detention, the Australian government had significant responsibilities for Mr Khazaei’s health and wellbeing.

I mention these matters in tabling this report by way of reminder that legislation can save lives, it can be transformative, but in some cases when human rights are limited to such an extent to cause harm, it can be deadly. It is why the Human Rights Committee is so important and its work should not be hindered or tainted by partisanship.

The dissenting members, in considering the international human rights law implications of such legislation, concluded that the repeal of medical transfer provisions could lead to the return of persons to regional processing countries in circumstances that may not be consistent with Australia's non-refoulement obligations and the right to an effective remedy. We also found that as the medical transfer provisions repealed by the bill would appear to provide a higher degree of access to healthcare, repealing this legislative safeguard may represent an unjustified retrogressive step in relation to the realisation of the right to health for refugees and asylum seekers in regional processing countries.

I conclude by noting that as the work of the Human Rights Committee is closely followed by similar committees internationally, and by the judiciary, it would be a horrible reflection of the members of this committee if in the 46th Parliament the Human Rights Committee became politicised.

I encourage my fellow members, the Government and others to examine the committee's full report, and I commend the committee's Report 6 of 2019 to the House.