The law and politics of human rights in an isolated country without a bill of rights will always be complex and piecemeal. We Australians may continue to get by without a bill of rights. Our politicians will continue to lampoon the judges for stepping into what the politicians regard as their sacred domain, namely public policy mandated at the ballot box. When such policy impacts on the basic rights and liberties of persons, even though they be members of despised minorities such as detained asylum seekers, the judges will continue to have a role to play: upholding the Constitution, strictly interpreting statutes consistent with fundamental rights and liberties and shaping the common law in harmony with contemporary international legal standards and social norms. Public advocates will also have their role in defending the courts and in criticising the politicians who trample the rights of unpopular minorities claiming a popular mandate and an overriding public interest such as national sovereignty or border protection. Being attentive to the judges and the public advocates as well as to the opinion polls and political spin doctors, we will be better placed to constitute a society in which all are assured their due under the rule of law.
Honouring Western Australia's gift to the nation, Ronald Wilson judge and public advocate, we recall his 1996 observation that for us 'Australians there is such a fear of difference, or alternatively, a commitment to self-interest, that the interests of the majority will always take precedence until such time as there is a widespread commitment, at all levels of the community, to the principle that human rights matter for everyone'. Courts and public advocates are indispensable whether or not we have a bill of rights.
Extract from the 2003 Sir Ronaldt Wilson Lecture by Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO.