While much has been made of the fact that Nicola Roxon is our first female attorney-general, celebrations will be short-lived as Roxon faces significant tests in this new role.
She will continue to lead the Government's defence of new laws requiring plain packaging of tobacco products, and has already flagged her intentions to use legal action to pursue reimbursement from manufacturers for the costs of smoking-related diseases.
Independent legal experts have questioned the likelihood of a government successfully opposing British American Tobacco's High Court challenge to the laws. While this has arguably become a personal crusade for the former health minister, this issue will be a significant distraction for our new first law officer.
There are other issues Roxon must address as well. The Government is currently consulting on consolidating Commonwealth anti-discrimination law into a single Act, which is a key component of Australia's human rights framework. The laws must strengthen protections for vulnerable groups on the basis of their gender, race, disability and age.
The human rights framework includes other actions that Roxon will now be responsible for, such as:
- funding education initiatives to promote a greater understanding of human rights across the community;
- developing a new national human rights action plan to enhance domestic and international engagement on human rights issues;
- establishing new parliamentary processes to provide greater scrutiny of legislation for compliance with international human rights obligations; and
- creating an annual NGO human rights forum to enable comprehensive engagement with non-government organisations on human rights matters.
However, other initiatives recommended by Australia's largest community consultation in 2009 were rejected, including the implementation of statutory protections for human rights. While Roxon originally supported a Bill of rights or human rights Act, she has been quick to distance herself from this position, and the strong community support for a human rights Act means the issue won't be going away.
Roxon has also publicly supported marriage equality. The attorney-general's office would be responsible on advising the Government on any proposed changes to the Marriage Act, so if the legislation passes through the parliament, Roxon would have a key role in this (potentially divisive) reform.
To make Australia's justice system fair and accessible, Roxon must also improve the performance of our legal assistance services and courts.
In her maiden speech to the Parliament in November 1998, Roxon set out a vision for a legal system in this country which protects people, and which is cheap and accessible to everybody. Without this we cannot ensure that our community will continue to have a peaceful way of resolving disputes.
We must not weaken the system to the extent that we leave the powerful to run roughshod over others or, worse, resort to violence and intimidation to get their way as occurs in so many other countries around the world.
Organisations including the Law Council of Australia and the Law Institute of Victoria have identified chronic under-funding of Commonwealth legal aid services, and community legal centres have called for a seismic shift in funding from the Federal Government.
The current arrangement places the onus on states and territories to deliver services, with commendable focuses on early intervention, services targeted to vulnerable groups and increased collaboration.
However, the agreement focuses on outputs (numbers of clients seen) rather than any meaningful assessment of impacts of legal services, and funding has decreased in real terms over the last decade.
Similarly, courts, including the High Court and the Family Court, have identified needs for increased funding in recent years. While recent budgets have included small increases to funding, practitioners have recognised the need for more resources to allow courts to effectively provide access to justice.
Given Roxon's commitment to access to justice, she must direct her attention to a fairer and more just legal system, which requires adequate resourcing.
This article first appeared in the Geelong Advertiser .