It is almost two years since the Rudd Government issued its historic Apology to the Stolen Generations. Polling immediately prior to the Apology indicated that it remained a contentious and potentially divisive issue, with 55 per cent of Australians supporting the Government’s decision to say sorry and 36 per cent opposed. Polling conducted in the days after the Apology, however, told a different story; one of the unifying power of bold leadership and of the deep resonance of Australian values such as dignity, respect and fairness. Just a week after the Prime Minister said sorry, support for the Apology had risen to 68 percent, while opposition had fallen dramatically to 22 per cent. Later polls showed an even more drastic shift, with a Sydney Morning Herald poll putting support at 78 per cent and opposition at just 16 per cent. Two years on, the Government’s response to the recommendations of the National Human Rights Consultation, in particular the enactment of an Australian Human Rights Act, present the Prime Minister with another opportunity to exercise responsible leadership and unite us around fundamentally Australian values.
The Consultation Committee’s report was released following one of the most extensive exercises in participatory democracy in Australian history. The independent committee received over 35,000 submissions and hosted 66 roundtables throughout metropolitan, regional and rural Australia. The committee found that, ‘after 10 months of listening to the people of Australia, [there is] no doubt that the protection and promotion of human rights is a matter of national importance.’
On 26 January 2010, Gerard Henderson wrote that the report revealed that ‘a majority of Australians believe human rights are adequately protected now’. This, however, tells only a small part of the story. Yes, as Henderson wrote, most Australians may be ‘happy with their lot’, but most Australians are also informed, sophisticated and empathetic enough to recognise that their lot is not everyone’s lot. Reflecting this, the report found that the patchwork of human rights protection is ‘fragmented and incomplete and its inadequacies are felt most keenly by the marginalised and vulnerable’. There was a strong view that ‘we could do better in guaranteeing fairness for all within Australia and in protecting the dignity of people who miss out’. This was corroborated by independent research commissioned for the report which demonstrated very strong support, up to 75 per cent, for further measures to protect the human rights of people with mental illness, the elderly, Aboriginal Australians and people with disability.
Henderson further wrote that the push for a Human Rights Act ‘seems doomed’, citing the Attorney-General’s abundantly reasonable observation that ‘the enhancement of human rights should be done in a way that as far as possible unites a community rather than causes further division’. Again, however, this only reveals a small part of the story. The committee’s report demonstrated widespread public support for legislative and institutional action to promote human rights. There was very strong support for a Human Rights Act. 87 per cent of submissions to the Committee which considered the issue supported a Human Rights Act, while the independent research demonstrated 57 per cent support and only 14 per cent opposition. This compares very favourably with support and opposition pre-Apology.
There is widespread public and political consensus on the implementation of many of the recommendations made by the National Human Rights Consultation Committee, including enhanced human rights education and strengthened parliamentary scrutiny of fundamental rights and freedoms. The Government should move immediately on these.
While it is true that there is less consensus regarding a Human Rights Act, the opposition to such an Act is often overstated, particularly that of religious groups. Many religious groups, leaders and churches support a Human Rights Act, including the Anglican General Synod and the Uniting Church. So do many past and present leaders from all sides of politics and all corners of the nation, among them Malcolm Fraser, Neville Wran, Gareth Evans, Fred Chaney, Steve Bracks, Michael Lavarch, Rob Hulls and Natasha Stott Despoja.
The federal Attorney-General is correct in expressing a preference for the enhancement of human rights in a way that unites rather than divides us. As demonstrated by the Apology, however, political leadership and vision can unite people, even on controversial issues. That is particularly the case when what is being proposed is good, evidence-based policy that resonates deeply with our Australian commitment to respect, tolerance, fairness, freedom and the rule of law.
Far from being divisive, political leadership on an already popular Human Rights Act would unite us through legal protection and institutional strengthening of those Australian democratic values we hold in common.
Philip Lynch is Director of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre