A Vision for Human Rights

I am the Attorney-General for the Australian Capital Territory.  As the Territory is so small, I also hold four other Ministerial positions, including Minister for Health, Minister for Women, Minister for the Arts and Minister for Disability and Housing.  This multi-tasking gives me such insight into the interconnectedness of social justice issues that I become a powerful advocate for economic, social and cultural rights. By clever liaison with the ACT Greens who hold four seats and the balance of power in the ACT Legislative Assembly, I manage to fast-track the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights into the Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT), blending the South African and Northern Ireland models to make legal history.  The Canberra Times and BBC World compete to run feature story after feature story about the innovative ESCR policy initiatives in Canberra, focused on domestic violence and housing rights, achieving equal pay for women, addressing homelessness as a human right, guaranteeing full access to quality health care, offering fantastic early childhood education to every child, promoting the dignity of those with mental illnesses, running a fully human-rights compliant detention facility and promoting the rights of people with disabilities.

Indigenous governance, health and education initiatives are an early priority, with Indigenous solutions given the budget and resources they need to be realised over a ten-year time-fame, led by the new Indigenous member of the Legislative Assembly (Canberra residents Mick Dodson and Sir William Deane often help out as special advisers).

I also plough large injections of energy and cash into the cultural life of Canberra.  Very soon, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton abandon the Sydney Theatre Company to co-found the Canberra Theatre Company, which also houses the beautiful new Indigenous Arts Centre.  The NTC specializes in free human rights theatre productions twice a week, which are so entertaining that ABC TV and Radio broadcasts them nationally.  The TV version out-rates even ‘So You Think You Can Dance’.  People from Melbourne start to visit for the weekend.

I triple the budget and resources of the ACT Human Rights Commission and the internal government machinery.  I give all Canberra-based social justice advocates a big core-funding grant, tax exempt status, a big office with shared secretariat services, and a two-hour scheduled meeting with me once a week (plus free day spa vouchers so they can finally learn to relax a little).  Part of this new grant money is to fund an innovative public communication campaign (‘Human Rights Rock!’, led by Powderfinger), so that Canberrans start to understand the Act more and learn ways to use it in their dealings with government and public authorities.

All ACT politicians, senior bureaucrats, judicial officers and the AFP are sent off to intensive human rights camp for a month supervised by Professor Hilary Charlesworth.  ANU College of Law has to double its size to cope with all the students who want to enrol in human rights law and devote their professional lives to social justice instead of joining a big firm.

Within the year, so many people from Queanbeyan NSW move across the border to Canberra to reap the benefits of being governed under a human rights culture, that the bell-weather Federal seat of Eden-Monaro has to be redistributed.

On a wave of popular support, I am elected to this new Federal seat of Deane-Dodson and enter the Commonwealth Parliament.  President Gillard immediately sees my potential and promotes me to the post of Attorney-General.  All Federal Parliamentarians, senior bureaucrats, High Court judges and the rest of the AFP are sent off to intensive human rights camp for a month, again supervised by Professor Hilary Charlesworth.  There is also a special year-long camp for the intelligence agencies and the Department of Immigration.

I pull refugee policy into my Department, and again triple the budgets of the Human Rights section and the Office of International Law within the Department, as well as the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Law Reform Commission.  There is a new Parliamentary Secretary for Human Rights appointed to assist me, and her first job is to reform the Cabinet Submission process and legislative scrutiny so that any new initiative is scrutinised for compatibility with human rights, under the Human Rights Act 2009 (Cth).  No Bill can come before Cabinet before the Deputy Secretary for Human Rights in my Department has cleared it.  Then of course, there is the rigorous process of scrutiny undertaken by the new Joint Standing Committee on Human Rights in Parliament, which I sit on when I can.  The Committee has all the powers of a Royal Commission.

This time I give all members of the Attorney-General Human Rights NGO Forum a huge core-funding grant, tax exempt status, offices in Barton with secretariat services (sadly I have to kick out all the pharmaceutical lobbyists and military contractors from their offices to achieve this), and offer scheduled meetings with me once a week.  Everyone who wins the Human Rights Medal gets a statue and a suburb named after them.  The statues go in front of the new Australian Human Rights Centre, which sits right next to the War Memorial and gets equal funding.

Luckily I win four consecutive terms and can implement all the fine policies started in the ACT at the national level.  I never worry about the sustainability of this legacy because of all the young human rights advocates coming through who want to be involved in public life for the promotion of human rights, and so retire happy to dabble in community theatre.

Dr Susan Harris Rimmer is President of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and a researcher at RegNet, ANU