Northern Territory detention royal commission shows Malcolm Turnbull can lead on human rights

Northern Territory detention royal commission shows Malcolm Turnbull can lead on human rights

The piece was first published by the Canberra Times

Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull's announcement of a royal commission into the abuse of children in Northern Territory jails gives an insight into his instincts on human rights. Turnbull said he was "deeply shocked" and "appalled" by the footage aired by Four Corners and acted swiftly in calling the inquiry. It was decisive action that shows the potential Turnbull has to lead on human rights more broadly.

The reality is, from marriage equality to refugee policy, Turnbull has a golden opportunity to make progress, despite divisions in his own party and a complex Senate to navigate. In fact, it's precisely these challenges that create opportunities for more constructive, practical outcomes. Where his predecessor Tony Abbott took a polarising approach, Turnbull can build consensus.

Australian democracy suffered under Abbott. Press freedom went backwards, secrecy flourished, whistleblowers who spoke out in the public interest were aggressively pursued, the Australian Human Rights Commission was attacked, NGO advocacy was stifled and the rule of law was undermined.

Turnbull can make progress here, in line with his party's stated aim of achieving an intelligent, free and liberal Australian democracy.

Since taking office, he set a different course on some of these issues, but there's much more to be done. We need stronger whistleblower protections, more open government, better targeted counter-terrorism laws and respect for NGO advocacy. Turnbull will find friends across the political spectrum on initiatives like these, and in particular from Nick Xenophon.

On marriage equality, the Liberal Party should be guided by its constitution which proclaims a belief in freedom and human dignity, including the freedom to choose our own way of living, subject to the rights of others. It recognises that family life is fundamental to the wellbeing of society.

Marriage equality is inherently about these things. It is about government removing a barrier to allow individuals the freedom to choose to make a lifelong marriage commitment to each other. Clearly the best way to realise this is through a free vote in Parliament, but if that can't be achieved the plebiscite should be brought on.

On Indigenous policy, Turnbull can reset the government's fractured relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership. This starts with engaging properly with the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples - the representative body for Indigenous people that was bypassed by Abbott for his own hand-picked committee. Turnbull should restore funding to Congress and look to the Redfern Statement, endorsed in June by Congress and a coalition of Indigenous organisations, as a platform of action.

Change must come on refugee policy. Three years ago, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd launched policies that unleashed great cruelty on innocent people who came here seeking protection. Policies that saw people indefinitely warehoused on remote islands purportedly to be resettled anywhere but here.

Three years on, the abject human failure of those policies is apparent. In our work, we see the damage first hand. The mental disintegration, self-harm and suicide. The sexual assault, injuries and deaths. The complete waste of human potential.

No policy challenge justifies knowingly inflicting this harm.

About 1500 people still languish on Nauru and Manus and a further 300 face deportation there. The government repeatedly refuses New Zealand's resettlement offers while spending over $50 million in a failed attempt to send people to Cambodia and looking desperately to Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines or any other poor country to accept what is our responsibility.

Turnbull and his Immigration Minister Peter Dutton concede that our policy is "harsh" and "the lesser of two evils" but maintain it's the only option to prevent deaths at sea.

This is wrong and narrow thinking from the Prime Minister who called for an innovation and ideas boom. We must prevent deaths at sea but we don't have to inflict great cruelty on those who survive the journey to do it.

We currently direct enormous financial, human and foreign policy resources propping up cruel deterrence measures that push refugees back on other countries. Instead, we could marshal these resources to provide safe pathways to protection for people fleeing harm. So that people don't have to choose between persecution in their home country, hopeless poverty and insecurity in a neighbouring country or risking their lives on a boat to try and reach safety and a future.

It is precisely issues like these that the global summit being hosted by President Barack Obama in September will explore. Australia should attend the summit with an open mind and a commitment to co-operation and shouldering our responsibility. It is only by working constructively with other nations that we can find a sustainable solution.

Our belligerent refugee policies have damaged our international standing and national interest. One initiative which can help turn this around is our election bid for membership of the UN Human Rights Council.

Membership of the Council would give Australia a seat at the table to address the gravest and most systematic human rights abuses facing the globe. The bid has bipartisan support and our bid platform is sound, with a focus on death penalty abolition, gender equality, Indigenous rights and more. But to be credible it must be matched by meaningful action at home and abroad.

None of this will be easy. It will take determination and clever negotiation. But opportunity beckons for a legacy of more just and reconciled society, better protection of individual freedoms and stronger democratic foundations.

Hugh de Kretser is the executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre.