About 4 years ago, I was involved in consultations with more than 100 homeless or formerly homeless people across Melbourne about whether a Charter of Rights could make Victoria a more inclusive and rights-respecting community. The terms of reference for that consultation were limited to considering civil and political rights and not economic and social rights. While this may have made some (limited) sense to me as a lawyer, I was struck by how little sense it made to the homeless, to the rights-holders. “Having freedom of movement and expression without the right to health and housing is like having icing without a cake,” said Bill, an elderly homeless man in his submission to the consultative committee. I was struck again by the day-to-day importance and fragility of economic and social rights when a high-level United Nations committee released its report on Australia on 25 May. The report was prepared after 2 days of dialogue and the exchange of extensive written reports between an Australian government delegation and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Committee also received submissions and heard from a non-government delegation, which provided them not only with statistical information and data, but also relayed stories like Bill’s.
The result of this consultation process is a report, adopted by a Committee of 18 independent experts from across the world, which reflects the human rights situation ‘on the ground’ in Australia, but also makes practical, evidence-based recommendations as to how we can improve our human rights performance. The report is balanced and constructive, commending Australia on recent initiatives and advances, including the commitment to ‘close the gap’ in Indigenous inequality, efforts to combat violence against women, and the Apology to the Stolen Generations.
The Committee also made 26 recommendations for improvement and expressed concern that, despite ‘the absence of any significant factors impeding the effective implementation of economic and social rights’ in Australia, substantial problems persist in areas such as mental health, poverty and homelessness.
Mental health care services are chronically under-resourced in Australia. There are widespread problems with access to care, quality of care and adequate accommodation for people with mental illness. People with mental illness are significantly over-represented in key measures of disadvantage such as homelessness, unemployment, poverty and substance abuse.
The Committee was particularly critical of the ‘high rate of incarceration of people with mental diseases’ and called on Australia to ‘ensure all prisoners receive adequate and appropriate mental health treatment when needed’.
Despite previous UN recommendations, the Committee was told that Australia has not developed an official poverty line. Without such a measure, it is very difficult to monitor progress and evaluate the effectiveness of poverty reduction policies and programs. The Committee urged Australia to ‘to develop a comprehensive poverty reduction and social inclusion strategy’. In a related recommendation, the Committee also called on Australia to ensure universal and adequate social security coverage and review potentially discriminatory and punitive measures, including the ‘quarantining’ of payments under the Northern Territory Intervention.
While the Committee welcomed the Rudd Government’s significant commitment to halve homelessness by 2020, it noted that homelessness has increased over the last decade, a period of unprecedented prosperity. The fact that 105,000 people experience homelessness every night is evidence that Australia needs to take further and urgent action to ensure an adequate standard of living for all. Even during the good times, many disadvantaged groups did not have equal access to basic services. Now that we are in tougher times, sustained investment in basic human rights is critical. Human rights must be made recession-proof. The Australian Government has an obligation to ensure that basic entitlements, such as health care, education and adequate social security, are equally available to all.
The Committee also made a series of recommendations to address inequality at both the local and international levels. At the local level, the Committee recommended the enactment of comprehensive federal anti-discrimination laws, strengthened efforts to improve gender equality, and special measures to improve workforce participation among disadvantaged groups. Recognising that our human rights obligations do not end at home, the Committee requested that Australia take action to address the human rights implications of climate change and increase aid to developing countries; the first time that a UN treaty body has included recommendations on these issues in a country report.
While welcoming the current National Human Rights Consultation, the Committee reiterated that Australia should enact comprehensive national human rights legislation. A national Human Rights Act would not, of course, be a panacea to disadvantage and poverty. It could, however, promote more responsive and accountable government, improve public services, and enshrine fundamental values such as freedom, dignity, respect and a fair go. Critically, the Committee said that any Human Rights Act should protect the full range of economic and social rights, such as the right to adequate healthcare and housing.
It is now imperative the Australian Government act promptly and positively on the UN report. Human rights must be a priority at a time when the global financial crisis threatens the dignity and equality of many poor and vulnerable groups, particularly given the expanding body of research which demonstrates a strong correlation between equitable social policy on the one hand, and economic development and growth on the other. In any event, our obligation to protect basic social and economic rights doesn’t recede during tough times. On the contrary, human rights protections are more important now than ever, because it is the most disadvantaged groups – the unemployed, the homeless, people with mental illness, single mothers and their children – who are most adversely affected.
Philip Lynch is Director of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre