The Victorian Ombudsman dealt with more than 3000 complaints about human rights issues in the past year, prompting, in many cases, reversals of decisions, improved policies and other actions upholding the public’s rights.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted more complaints to the Victorian Ombudsman, the State’s human rights investigator.
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass said looking into whether a person’s human rights were breached under the Charter of Rights legislation was a tough balancing act– especially when the pandemic continued to curtail many long-standing freedoms.
“All too often human rights are poorly understood both by the public agencies who are obliged to consider them and by the public they are intended to protect,” Ms Glass said.
“The human rights failures we see are not deliberate – those in authority simply fail to properly consider or balance some of the fundamental principles that underpin our basic freedoms.
“It is more important than ever that the public understands how their rights may – or may not – be limited, and the requirement of the Victorian Government to get the balance right.”
Some of the cases the Ombudsman intervened in to ensure human rights were protected include:
- A mother using three life support machines to keep her daughter alive was told she was no longer entitled to an electricity discount as the machines were not on the Department’s approved list – but without the discount the mother could not afford to keep the machines running;
- A woman was forced to urinate in a water bottle inside a bus on the way to a COVID-19 quarantine hotel after being denied the opportunity to use a bathroom at Melbourne Airport;
- A mother and her young children could not sleep in their public housing property after asbestos removalists did not finish the job and damaged the home, including leaving electrical wires exposed;
- After waiting nearly four hours, a woman in a wheelchair had to forgo a COVID-19 test to return home to use the bathroom as there were no accessible toilets on site, only to be sent to the back of the queue;
- Delays issuing a new-born baby’s birth certificate caused financial hardship for her mother who could not apply for family Centrelink assistance and had to pay full price for four doctor’s appointments as the infant was unable to be put on the family Medicare card; and
- A female prisoner went blind while in prison, but her mother was unable to drop off audiobooks for her to use.
In most cases, complaints were resolved quickly and informally and public agencies were responsive to fix problems.
The Ombudsman noted this year marked the fifteenth anniversary of Victoria’s Charter of Rights legislation, and said recent cases illustrated our rights in a global pandemic.
“There can be little doubt COVID-19 has forever changed the public’s conception of government, human rights and what is possible in this State. We see limitations on those freedoms that would not long ago have been unimaginable,” she said.
“But even during a global pandemic, human rights cannot be ignored.
“Had dignity been considered when a woman needed the toilet while awaiting transit to hotel quarantine, she would not have had to urinate in a plastic water bottle on a moving bus.”
The Ombudsman tabled The Ombudsman for Human Rights: A Casebook in Parliament today, providing a snapshot of the thousands of cases and complaints showing the impact of decision-making on people’s human rights, including rights of children and families, kinship carers, injured workers, activists and prisoners.
The casebook also shows the balancing act working, including Parks Victoria’s decision to fence off access to popular rock-climbing places in the Grampians National Park to support Aboriginal cultural rights, and reaffirming a council’s decision to ban an aggressive community activist to protect the rights of councillors, staff and community members.
Ms Glass urged those in power to be guided by the Charter of Rights Act, to ensure public servants get the balance right and make better decisions.
“The act of considering human rights is no more or less than putting people at the heart of decision-making,” she said.