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Administration of local government and human rights

The administrative arm of local government has an important role to play in implementing and promoting human rights in its day-to-day operations.

In particular, council staff need to consider human rights when they deliver services to, and engage with, the community.

By considering human rights, local councils not only comply with their legal obligations under the Charter but often improve service delivery too.

For this reason, it is important that human rights principles are embedded in all council operations, including policies and procedures, staff codes of conduct and position descriptions.

Many local councils have created guidelines for developing or reviewing policies and procedures to ensure compliance with the Charter and to build a human rights culture in local government and the community.

Local councils should also provide human rights education and training to staff to ensure that they understand their legal obligations under the Charter and have the necessary training and information to meet those obligations.

Policies and procedures

One of the most effective ways of ensuring that council staff act compatibly with human rights is to undertake a review of council policies and procedures.

By integrating human rights into council policies and procedures, local councils can provide staff with guidance on how to carry out their day-to-day activities within a human rights framework.

In particular, a rights-based approach can enhance policies and procedures that are likely to impact on disadvantaged and marginalised members of the community.

The flowchart in Manual 2 of the Victorian Local Governance Association’s Human Rights Toolkit provides a framework for reviewing council policies and procedures for compatibility with the Charter.

Examples of integrating human rights into policies and procedures

  • Baw Baw Shire Council’s Human Rights Charter Guidelines require policies to be reviewed against the Charter and set out a process for doing so. The guidelines require the following statement to be included in all policies: ‘This policy has been reviewed under the Human Rights Charter. Amendments have been made to ensure compatibility. The following rights are reasonably limited…’
  • The Northern Grampians Shire Council policy template requires all policies to consider the Charter and include one of the following statements:
    • ‘It is considered that this policy does not impact on any human rights identified in the Charter of Human Rights & Responsibilities Act 2006’ or
    • ‘This policy has a positive impact on the following Human Rights; or
    • ‘This policy has a negative impact on [type the right] Human Rights, but is justified by…’
  • The Moreland City Council Human Rights Working Group introduced a new section, ‘Human Rights Consideration’, into the council’s policy template, which states that the implications of the policy have been assessed in accordance with the requirements of the Charter.

The following documents are examples of guidelines or tools local councils have developed to assist with the review of policies and procedures:

  • The Boorondara City Council Human Rights Compatibility Assessment Tool and the Human Rights Compatibility Flowchart assist staff with reviewing policies, procedures and council decisions for compatibility with the Charter. The assessment tool requires the reviewer to consider the objective of the proposed document, the rights raised, the limitation on any rights, and whether any limitation is reasonable and justified.
  • The Stonnington City Council Human Rights Impact Assessment Tool sets out a concise seven-step procedure for assessing whether a policy, report, plan or procedure is compatible with the Charter. Once an assessment has been undertaken, the reviewer must document the process and prepare a statement of compatibility.
  • The Towong Shire Charter of Human Rights Policy “Sign Off” Sheet includes a simple checklist to ensure that existing or proposed policies are compliant with the Charter. Once the review is completed, staff must sign a compliance statement providing that the policy has been reviewed or developed in accordance with the Charter.

Staff engagement with human rights

The Charter requires council staff to carry out their work in a way that is consistent with human rights. As the link between local government and the community, this means that council staff need to consider human rights when they make decisions, engage with the community and deliver services.

Local councils can ensure that human rights principles are embedded in council operations by including reference to the Charter in position descriptions and the staff code of conduct. This will send an important message to council staff that human rights are a key consideration for the work of local government.

A good example is the Code of Conduct for Victorian Public Sector Employees, which includes a dedicated section on ‘demonstrating commitment to human rights’.

Case study: Cardinia Shire Council – Human rights objective in enterprise agreement

Cardinia Shire Council updated its enterprise agreement to include a new objective to ‘provide a safe, satisfying work place that respects human rights and is free from harassment, bullying and unlawful discrimination, in which all employees are treated fairly and with dignity in all aspects of employment.’

Case study: City of Greater Dandenong – Position description template

The City of Greater Dandenong position description template refers to the Charter and provides that staff must be:

‘mindful of the requirements outlined in the Victorian Charter of Human Rights in the provision of service delivery and interactions with work colleagues. Acting respectfully, responsibly and being accountable for actions are fundamental expectations Council has of all employees and managers’.

The following staff codes of conduct are examples that consider and promote human rights:

  • The South Grampians Staff Code of Conduct refers to the Charter and states that “employees shall ensure that all activities undertaken in the course of employment are compatible with, and respectful of human rights so that people and businesses are treated fairly and with respect, equality and dignity at all times”.
  • The Darebin Employee Code of Conduct states that council staff should act in accordance with the rights, principles and values set out in the Charter.
  • The Central Goldfields Staff Code of Conduct states that the Charter requires council staff to act compatibly with human rights and to consider human rights when making decisions. It also requires staff who are involved in policy development to familiarise themselves with the Charter.

Staff training and education

As the face of local government, council staff engage with members of the community on a regular basis. It is therefore essential that council staff understand how the Charter affects the everyday operations of local government. 

Local councils should provide human rights training and education to their staff to ensure that they understand the Charter, are aware of their legal obligations under the Charter, and know how to apply the Charter in their day-to-day activities. Human rights training and education can also help to foster and develop a human rights culture in local government.

Many local councils now run human rights training for their staff and management. The Commission also runs a range of human rights workshops that council staff can attend.

Case study: Yarra City Council – Human rights training

Yarra City Council includes reference to human rights and equal opportunity in its staff induction programs, as well as referring to relevant contact officers for further assistance. The council also delivers human rights training via the council intranet, e-learning programs, equal opportunity training and workplace behaviour training, ongoing awareness and information sessions, policy development, staff newsletters and emails outlining Charter obligations.

Case study: Hobsons Bay City Council – Charter presentation

One of the key messages of the Hobsons Bay City Council Staff Charter Training presentation given to council staff is that ‘human rights are common sense and improve services’.