There are some immediate, simple steps, new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull can take to improve human rights in Australia. Our Executive Director, Hugh de Kretser outlines five priorities.
1. More women in Cabinet
Advancing gender equality within Cabinet must be a priority. It was an appalling reflection on Tony Abbott that only two members of his nineteen member Cabinet were women. Malcolm Turnbull can change this and start a process working towards equal representation in both Parliament and Cabinet.
2. Hold a parliamentary vote on marriage equality
Neither a referendum or a plebiscite are required to achieve marriage equality – both are unnecessary, costly and come with risks. The High Court has already confirmed that Parliament has the power to deliver marriage equality. A vote in parliament could make marriage equality a reality within months.
3. Restore Australia’s relationship with the UN
The UN rightfully highlighted a number of serious concerns about Australia’s human rights record and in particular our treatment of asylum seekers. The level of disrespect directed towards the United Nations and disregard for our international human rights law obligations reached alarming levels during Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership. Prime Minister Turnbull can rebuild this relationship, particularly in the light of Australia’s pending Universal Periodic Review at the UN.
4. Support meaningful Recognition of Indigenous peoples in the Constitution
Tony Abbott had a strong and commendable commitment to Indigenous peoples’ recognition in Australia’s Constitution, but made a number of missteps in leading the process. Malcolm Turnbull should come out with a strong public statement in support of meaningful Constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples. The Expert Panel’s recommendations outlined a positive and achievable way forward and should guide the Prime Minister’s progress towards a viable referendum.
5. Halt the erosion of our democratic and human rights safeguards
The Prime Minister needs to reverse the trend of eroding safeguards, like the rule of law, press freedom, whistleblower protections and NGO advocacy, that protect Australians’ democracy and human rights. The change in leadership also provides a chance to demonstrate respect for the vital and independent role of the Australian Human Rights Commission in maintaining high human rights standards in Australia. The new PM should restore the Commission’s funding and appoint a full-time Disability Commissioner again.
In the medium and longer-term outlook, Prime Minister Turnbull should tackle significant human rights challenges and seize opportunities to advance the protection of human rights in law.
The indefinite offshore detention of people who have come to Australia seeking safety must end. Instead of inflicting cruelty on those who survive the risky journey, we need to save lives at sea by creating safe pathways to protection.
The Prime Minister should reinvigorate the efforts to close the gap in Indigenous people’s inequality including by addressing the crisis of Indigenous over-imprisonment. We need to see a genuine commitment to ending the appallingly high rates of violence against women in Australia; and Australia’s foreign-aid budget should be restored to ensure Australia continues to play a positive global role in efforts to eradicate poverty.
Australia is the only western democratic nation that doesn’t have a national Human Rights Charter or a bill of rights. We know from experience that when human rights are not protected in law, they are always in danger of being eroded. There’s a pressing need to enshrine our values by protecting all of our human rights in law.