The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Queenslanders has continued to be the focus of human rights complaints over the past year – accounting for more than two out of every five matters considered.
The Queensland Human Rights Commission (QHRC), in its recently tabled 2021-22 annual report, reported that 43% of all human rights complaints it finalised related to COVID-19, up from 25% the previous year.
“These complaints commonly raised issues about vaccination, wearing masks, border restrictions, and hotel quarantine,” the report says. “The high proportion of COVID-19-related complaints has influenced the complaints data presented in this report and continues to determine the agencies most complained about (e.g., health agencies and police) and the rights most often identified in complaints (e.g., freedom of movement).
“The Queensland Parliament has continued to extend the public health emergency period through short-term legislation.
“While the Commission acknowledges the need to manage the spread of COVID-19, the Commission recommends that this be achieved through long-term legislation that incorporates safeguards to protect human rights, rather than through the continued use of extraordinary powers.”
QHRC Commissioner Scott McDougall said in the report’s foreword that, since Queensland’s Human Rights Act 2019 became fully operational on 1 January 2020, COVID-19 had been the “lens through which we’ve viewed much of its impact”.
“Complaints about COVID-19-related issues have comprised the bulk of human rights complaints received by the Commission, and formed the biggest share of our public comment and awareness-raising about the Act,” Mr McDougall said.
“The work of many of Queensland’s public entities in developing human rights compatibility assessment tools has been sharply focussed on pandemic response measures.
“Courts are grappling with multiple matters which will require them to assess the human rights impact of now-lapsed public health directions, while parliament has continued to pass COVID-related legislation and extend emergency powers.”
Mr McDougall said that, while it was not surprising the pandemic had become the focal point of QHRC since it was established, it was now time to “lift our eyes to the horizon” to expand how human rights protections apply beyond COVID.
‘Housing and homelessness’
“Human rights complaints to the Commission are still heavily COVID-focussed, but advocates have reported encouraging successes in using human rights arguments in the housing and homelessness sector to secure good outcomes for their clients without the need to engage in a formal complaint process,” Mr McDougall said.
“This is the dialogue model in action and is a promising sign of what is possible to achieve outside the formal complaints process.
“The work of parliamentary committees in examining human rights compatibility is becoming more sophisticated and detailed, and while this has not yet led to recommendations for proposed legislation to be amended, it is nonetheless a welcome development and an area we hope to continue to see growth in over the coming years.
“As the pandemic begins to subside it is critical we all reflect on how the Act will be used to protect and promote human rights into the future, where COVID-19 issues are less likely to dominate and other challenges come to the fore.”
The report – ‘Shifting the focus – the third annual report on the operation of Queensland’s Human Rights Act 2019’– was tabled in Queensland Parliament on Thursday.
Read the report.