Building a Human Rights Constituency

Those who have been given the opportunity to share their thoughts on what they would do if they were Attorney-General in this space usually provide detailed and specific insight into changes that could be made to government policy, legislation, parliamentary processes and our justice system to strengthen human rights protection. But with the federal election behind us, and a ‘new political paradigm’ ahead, I thought I would take a slightly different approach.

Often in this country, the course of action required to promote and protect human rights – whether as a matter of international law, because it is the just and fair course, or because it is simply the most logical and reasonable course – is not the course taken.  The main reason for this deviation is that sometimes the human rights course is not considered to be electorally popular, or worse, is seen to be an electoral liability.

This is arguably what happened to in relation to the Human Rights Act for Australia.

So, in this new paradigm, if I were Attorney-General, I would take a page out of Joe Trippi’s book, ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’ – to introduce a Human Rights Act for Australia.  Now I understand that the reference to this book and the title itself may seem at odds with what is usually covered in this space, but I ask you to stick with me.

For those who have not heard of Joe Trippi, he was responsible for the Howard Dean for America campaign – known among political and campaigning circles as the man who first successfully used the internet to engage Americans in an election campaign – paving the way for President Obama.

In 2004, well prior to President Obama taking the White House and introducing sweeping heath care reform, Joe Trippi wrote: ‘Polls show that a majority of Americans want government to provide some level of heath care, especially for children.  For decades, politicians have talked about this.  So why don’t we have it?’

Trippi went on to highlight the millions of dollars made in campaign donations from lobbyists, suggesting that this was the reason no action had been taken to that date.  And he then explained how this could change in the future – with the advent of new technology which could be harnessed to build an engaged constituency of people:

But that’s before the President of the United States shows up in Washington with the e-mail addresses of six million of his closest supporters.  Before the President vows to govern the way he’d won – by tapping into the will of the American people.  Before he drops them all a note that says, ‘Hey, if you really want health care, I need your help.  Go to your computer right now and e-mail your congressman and tell him that you don’t want him listening to the pharmaceutical lobby’.

So what is the relevance of this to the introduction of a Human Rights Act in Australia?

Human rights are universal; as article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’.  However, as we have seen recently in the context of the National Human Rights Consultation, the subsequent recommendations and Government response – sometimes the most obvious and logical next step is not taken.

The introduction of a Human Rights Act for Australia – a way of incorporating our international human rights obligations into domestic law, should not be controversial.  An election commitment to consult was made in 2007, by the then Opposition, which was successful and became the Government.  An independent consultation committee was established to seek the views of people in Australia and provide recommendations to Government in a report.  The report, based on overwhelming community support for the introduction of a Human Rights Act, recommended the enactment of such legislation.

And then, the Government responded by disavowing this recommendation, calling a Human Rights Act ‘contentious’ and ‘divisive’.

So what went wrong?  Well, this brings me back to Trippi.

Outside of legal, political and human rights circles, the idea of a Human Rights Act – while it may seem sensible – is not the kind of thing that fires you up, gets your blood boiling, makes you want to take to the streets or change your vote.

However, there is much about a Human Rights Act that connects with the interests of people and their daily lives which do energise and impassion people.  The challenge is to make this connection.

If I were Attorney-General, I would strive to bridge the disconnect between the way in which the portfolio is perceived and the impact it has on people on the ground.

If I were Attorney-General, I would make it my business to build a constituency of people who not only understood, but also were willing to fight for, the introduction of a Human Rights Act.  I would strive to build an active community of people who could see the real benefits of this legislation and could share it with their friends, family and colleagues in a way that would challenge the power of those opposed – those who spoke out against the Act, those who until this point had the ear of government.

If I were Attorney-General, I would take a long-tem view, looking to build on the size and scope of the national consultation, to build a constituency of support for better human rights protection – using parliamentary scrutiny and education initiatives to continue the conversation and keeping these and human rights clearly in the public domain.

My aim would be to ensure that human rights are at the centre of government decision-making.  A Human Rights Act is the way to achieve this, but an Act will be achieved without strong public understanding, engagement and support for human rights themselves.

This is what is needed to get a Human Rights Act and if I were Attorney-General, that is what I would do to ensure the next logical step is taken for what is right, just, fair and in keeping with our international human rights obligations.  Oh, and I would make sure I had a BIG email list.

Jenny Leong is a Campaign Coordinator at Amnesty International Australia and a recently appointed member of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre’s Advisory Committee