This year marks ten years since the formation of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (PJCHR), making it an opportune time to ask: what is it that the PJCHR does and what impact has it had in the last ten years?
What is the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights?
The PJCHR is a joint parliamentary committee with five members from the Senate and five members from the House of Representatives. The committee was established by the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011as part of the National Human Rights Framework launched in April 2010. In the second reading speech for the bill, the then Attorney-General, Mr Robert McClelland, said that the PJCHR is:
...designed to improve parliamentary scrutiny of new laws for consistency with Australia’s human rights obligations and to encourage early and ongoing consideration of human rights issues in policy and legislative development.
The committee’s functions include examining and reporting on all bills and legislative instruments that come before the Parliament for compatibility with human rights. These human rights are those recognised or declared in seven international human rights treaties to which Australia is a party.
The committee’s reports provide the Parliament with a technical examination of the potential human rights implications of legislation. It does not examine the policy or merits of legislation but rather it considers whether the legislation is compatible with Australia’s human rights obligations as it pursues that policy. It has generally approached its task on a consensus and non-partisan basis. The committee receives legal advice from an external legal adviser and has secretariat staff to assist it in performing its functions. It also has the function of inquiring into any matter relating to human rights referred to it by the Attorney-General.
Caption: Members from the PJCHR in 2013. From L to R front row: Former Deputy Chair the Hon Ken Wyatt AM, former Chair Mr Harry Jenkins AO, former Senator Ursula Stephens.
Back Row: Senator the Hon Anne Ruston, former Senator the Hon Kim Carr, the Hon Dan Tehan MP, and Mr Graham Perrett MP (Photo: Auspic).
Impact on human rights
Over the last decade, the PJCHR has considered a total of 2,254 bills and raised questions as to human rights compatibility in relation to a quarter of those bills (with over 90 per cent of bills reported on by the committee prior to their passage). During the same timeframe, the PJCHR has examined more than 18,000 legislative instruments, commenting on an average of 3 per cent (in recent years all disallowable legislative instruments were reported on within the disallowance timeframe).
The committee has also undertaken a number of inquiries both on its own initiative or referred to it by the Attorney-General, most recently the inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 and related bills.
A key role of the committee is to assist the Parliament and the executive to scrutinise the human rights implications of legislation in a more rigorous and consistent way. Through its work the PJCHR has brought attention to, and contributed to, more thorough consideration by the Parliament and public of human rights issues in legislation. The committee’s work has also improved recognition and consideration of human rights in legislative and policy development, which is reflected in improvements in the quality of statements of compatibility with human rights that accompany bills.
The work and impact of the committee will be discussed at an upcoming Senate lecture on 19 August 2022 with Mr Harry Jenkins AO and the Hon Mr Ken Wyatt AM - the inaugural Chair and Deputy Chair of the PJCHR. Mr Graham Perrett MP, current and longest serving member of the PJCHR, will also be on the panel. Come along to the lecture either in person or virtually by registering online.