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Can the Commonwealth Parliament Enact a Business and Human Rights Statute?

Question from Ann, Can the Commonwealth Parliament Enact a Business and Human Rights Statute?

Answer from AI:

The question of whether the Commonwealth Parliament can pass a statute titled ‘Australian Legal Framework for Business and Human Rights’ under the external affairs power in section 51(xxix) of the Australian Constitution is a complex one. This issue touches upon the interpretation of constitutional powers, international law, and the domestic legal obligations of Australian businesses.

Understanding the External Affairs Power

The external affairs power, as outlined in section 51(xxix) of the Australian Constitution, grants the Commonwealth Parliament the authority to legislate on matters involving external affairs. This power has been interpreted broadly by the High Court of Australia to include:

  1. Treaties Australia is a party to.
  2. Matters of international concern.
  3. Relations with other countries.
  4. Things external to Australia.

Key to this discussion is the interpretation of “matters of international concern.”

International Human Rights as a Matter of International Concern

The 2011 United Nations “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” and other soft law instruments, while not treaties, represent international norms and standards that have been recognized globally. These principles articulate the expectation that businesses respect human rights throughout their operations. Although these guidelines are not legally binding treaties, they can be considered matters of international concern due to their widespread acceptance and the global consensus on the importance of human rights.

Precedents and Legal Interpretations

The High Court of Australia has previously affirmed that the external affairs power can be used to legislate on matters of international concern that are not necessarily tied to a specific treaty. For example, in the landmark case of Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen (1982), the Court held that legislation could be enacted under the external affairs power to give effect to Australia’s obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, even though the specific measures were not directly mandated by the treaty.

Similarly, in Tasmania v Commonwealth (1983), commonly known as the Franklin Dam case, the High Court found that the external affairs power could be used to protect World Heritage properties, recognizing the global importance of such sites and Australia’s international obligations to protect them.

Applying These Principles to Business and Human Rights

Given the precedents and the broad interpretation of the external affairs power, it is arguable that the Commonwealth Parliament could enact a statute requiring Australian businesses to adopt governance policies that protect and enable human rights. This would be based on the premise that human rights issues, particularly those related to business activities, are of international concern and thus fall within the scope of the external affairs power.

Considerations and Challenges

However, several considerations and potential challenges could arise:

  • Scope and Specificity: The statute would need to be carefully drafted to ensure it addresses matters of genuine international concern and does not overreach into areas considered purely domestic.
  • Implementation and Enforcement: Mechanisms for implementing and enforcing such a statute would need to be clearly defined, balancing the need for effective human rights protection with the practicalities of business operations.
  • Consultation and Support: Engaging with businesses, human rights organizations, and the international community would be crucial in developing a framework that is both effective and supported by key stakeholders.


While there is no treaty specifically covering the proposed ‘Australian Legal Framework for Business and Human Rights’, the Commonwealth Parliament likely has the authority under the external affairs power to enact such a statute, given the global recognition of human rights issues as matters of international concern. However, careful consideration must be given to the drafting, implementation, and enforcement of such legislation.

It is recommended that individuals and businesses consult with legal professionals for personalized advice and to stay informed on developments in this area. For more information on the external affairs power and its application, the Australian Parliament House website and the United Nations Business and Human Rights page may offer valuable resources.

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