Human Rights? Sorry, We’d Rather Strip-Search Children

What’s the point of having a charter of human rights if it just gets ignored?

The Summary Offences and Control of Weapons Acts Amendment 2009 is burrowing its way through State Parliament at the moment. Designed to tackle “knife violence”, this bill will give police an extraordinary new array of powers, including the power to fine people for being disorderly, for being drunk and disorderly, and for being just plain drunk. And police will be able to kick people out of any area if they think they might become disorderly.

Most disturbingly, the bill will give police the power to search anyone without needing to show any sort of reasonable suspicion they might be doing or carrying anything illegal. Searches can be done completely at random.

Oh, and children and the disabled can be strip-searched.

Sound a bit draconian? It is. In fact, the Government even says it’s a human rights violation – these police powers are contrary to its own 2006 human rights charter. Police Minister Bob Cameron told State Parliament the new bill “is incompatible with the charter to the extent that it limits rights”, but, well, too bad for rights, because “the government intends to proceed with the legislation in its current form”.

Cameron told The Sunday Age recently “people have a right to privacy, but they also have a right not to be stabbed”. That’s certainly true. But there’s no escalating knife violence in Melbourne. Police statistics show that in the past two years, assaults where a knife was brandished or used declined by 2.9 per cent. But even if they were increasing, would giving police the power to search anybody be the best solution?

Police can only do these arbitrary searches within “designated areas”. But the police commissioner designates the areas. He only needs to suspect there might be some disorder in that area, or has been in the past. I’m fairly sure some sort of “disorder” has happened in even the most bourgeois suburbs in the past year.

When you give police extra powers, you increase the chance that power will be abused. And the victims of police abuse will, more often than not, be minorities and youths. “Random” searches are never statistically random; they’re arbitrary. Police will be able to target whoever they want, without the restraint of having to suspect their targets are doing anything wrong.

But most importantly, if our human rights charter doesn’t prevent governments giving police the power to randomly search children, it can’t be much of a charter.

Politicians like to talk big about how they can protect human rights. The National Human Rights Consultation told Federal Parliament in September that an awareness of basic human rights should be enshrined in our education system and culture. And the debate over a federal bill of rights has covered such lofty issues as parliamentary sovereignty and the role of the judiciary in our constitutional system.

It’s a great debate. But if our experience of the Victorian charter is any indication, all those weighty arguments are moot. Victoria’s knife control bill shows that governments only respect human rights charters when they want to.

And this bill is hardly the only example. The Victorian charter claims “people have the right to hold opinions without interference” but this is hard to reconcile with the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, which makes “severe ridicule” of religious people unlawful. And how do we square Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls’ threat to shut down private men’s clubs with the charter’s claim we ‘have the right to assemble peacefully”? The entrepreneur who tried to set up a women-only travel company, just to be told it would breach the Equal Opportunity Act, might be sceptical she holds “the right to freely associate with others”.

The Victorian Government’s doublethink about human rights might be understandable if it was ignoring a pesky restriction on its powers imposed by a previous government. But Hulls was the one who pushed the charter through in the first place.

It seems human rights and governments are a marriage of convenience. If politicians find a more attractive political aim to pursue, our basic human rights are cuckolded and abandoned.