Australian’s protections for minorities and vulnerable groups were not good enough, the National Human Rights Consultation was told during its first Sydney hearing on Tuesday.

Representatives came to speak on problems faced by people with HIV, refugees and immigrants, ethnic minorities, prisoners, indigenous communities, and others, joining more than 10,000 written submissions already made.

There was a strong call for increased powers for the Australian Human Rights Commission to stand up for vulnerable groups and act against breaches of a new human rights act or charter.

However, Consultation committee chairman Father Frank Brennan said there was a constitutional problem with granting more powers to the Commission, and the government had already ruled out constitutional change.

The High Court has said that judicial power can only be exercised by courts. In the Brandy case it said the Commission isn’t a court and it doesn’t have the power to make orders, Fr Brennan told Sydney Star Observer.

But the Commission could be given the power to act in other ways, he said, and ideas were needed there.

The need for same-sex marriage was discussed by several legal experts on Tuesday. Fr Brennan said the issue of marriage and equal respect for same-sex couples had come up during earlier rural sessions as well.

In our plans for meeting with constituency groups, the gay and lesbian community and various representatives groups are on our list, he said.

Dr Angela Ward, a human rights professor at University College Dublin, said her experience with human rights charters in the UK and Ireland had shown that they could be used responsibly and improved the human rights record of governments, without overburdening the legal system.

Any recommendations from the Consultation would still have to be considered by Parliament. The Labor party will reconsider its own ambitions in human rights in July during the ALP National Conference. Sydney Star Observer understands gay and lesbian party members have raised marriage equality but will angle for federal civil unions.

Meanwhile, the Australian Human Rights Commission launched its sex and gender diversity report, recommending that the definition of sex affirmation treatment be broadened so that surgery is not the only criteria for a legal sex change.

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