The call for a charter of rights dominated the final public hearings of the National Human Rights Consultation, but even the less-publicised proposals presented a step forward for gay and lesbian equality.

While many options were presented, and many speakers decried the human rights abuses and discrimination that occur every day, actual reform will not come quickly. The consultation committee, headed by Father Frank Brennan, was granted another extension as the last consultation hearings wrapped up. A report is now due by 30 September and the Rudd Government is not expected to respond before the next election.

Australian Coalition for Equality spokesman Corey Irlam and Australia Marriage Equality convenor Rodney Croome joined and a tightly balanced speakers list of high profile lawyers, politicians and senior public officials during the debates that ran for three days in Parliament’s Great Hall last week.

Irlam spoke of the growing public support for better protection for GLBTI anti-discrimination and equality, but anti-discrimination legislation to provide that protection had been held up in the Parliament since the mid-1990s.

State lawyers don’t cover the federal government. Existing human rights instruments have gaps in them. Politicians have a lot of sympathy but for the last 14 year there hasn’t been the political will to take action, he said.

A lot of people continued have harmful beliefs about gay people, he said, and bigotry that needed to be challenged.

Gay people are doctors, teachers, lawyers, labourers and handymen. Yes, and florists too. But Hollywood won’t challenge that stereotype, Irlam said.

Croome spoke about marriage equality during a hot button issues session joining Anglican South Sydney Bishop Robert Forsyth who argued for the religious right to discriminate in its churches and schools.

There are preachers who tell us they want to marry same sex couples, Croome pointed out, showing the divide within the religious community growing.

While the support for a Human Rights Act was strong among audience, advocacy groups for vulnerable groups and the Australian Human Rights Commission, there was considerable opposition from many politicians and legal experts.

The chief alternative was a proposal by former justice minister Michael Tate who argued for parliament’s committees to play a stronger role in adjudicating human rights inconsistencies in federal legislation.

Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis said he would welcome a full human rights audit by the independent Human Rights Commission, but the Coalition was opposed a charter that could be interpreted by judges.

Any recommendation by the Consultation report that relied on legislation would face a tough hurdle passing the current fractured Senate. The earliest the Senate balance will change is 30 June 2011.
A constitutional bill of rights was explicitly ruled out under the Consultation’s terms of reference.

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