This piece was first published by The Drum.
Almost 40 years after Australia's first national anti-discrimination law was passed with bipartisan support, the Federal Government is backing away from the idea that equality is a human right worth protecting.
Late last month the Attorney-General, George Brandis, sought to gut our racial vilification laws by throwing down freedom of expression as an automatic trump card, no matter what the harm done by racist hate-speech. Last year Brandis fought hard against amendments to anti-discrimination laws that would have made them fairer and more accessible for people who have suffered discrimination. He's also criticised the Australian Human Rights Commission for paying too much attention to discrimination.
Brandis is cheered on by groups like the Institute of Public Affairs - an organisation that claims that non-discrimination is not a "real" human right and that takes the extreme view that the law should not prevent private companies from discriminating, which would mean that shopkeepers would be allowed to refuse to serve Aboriginal customers and bosses to sack their pregnant employees.
This sidelining of the right to non-discrimination has no basis in international law. The first two articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights refer to the equality of all human beings and the importance of non-discrimination to human rights protection. The fact that the Declaration starts with these core rights is no accident. The Universal Declaration was adopted shortly after World War II and the need for governments to address discrimination could not have been more apparent.
The most serious human rights violations - genocide, slavery, apartheid - cannot be understood as simple intrusions on an individual's physical integrity and property rights, which are the claims recognised as the exclusive basis of human rights by so-called "traditional freedoms" advocates. These atrocities are driven and characterised by discrimination.
Discrimination also lies at the heart of many injustices closer to home. The over-incarceration of Aboriginal peoples and widespread violence against women cannot be remedied if we refuse to recognise and respond to anything other than one-off violations of individual freedoms.
Anti-discrimination laws are sometimes denounced as "social engineering". Senator Flo Bjelke-Petersen said it when the Sex Discrimination Act was passed back in 1982; George Brandis said it when improvements to that Act were recommended by a parliamentary committee in 2008. They fail to see that that ship has sailed. Society is already engineered. Women earn less than men, people with disability are disrespected and disbelieved in criminal proceedings, and job applicants with foreign-sounding names are less likely to get interviews than equally qualified Smiths and McKenzies. If the goal is to rid society of the distorting effects of social engineering, then addressing discrimination is not a hindrance, it's essential.
In attempting to diminish discrimination protections, equality is cast as a threat to a more important right: freedom. Perhaps this debate would be clearer if they were more upfront about whose freedom they are talking about. Absolute protection of free speech, free markets and free association will often result in intrusions on other people's freedoms. In this context, appeals to freedom are essentially calls to prioritise a right to discriminate over fair and equal access to employment, education and services. Such calls may seem completely reasonable if you already have all the employment, education and services you need, but we should take with a grain of salt the views of people who stand atop a mountain of privilege and declare that privilege is irrelevant.
The battle to weaken laws and institutions that protect against discrimination is part of a broader attempt to redefine human rights as only those rights that involve the individual defending themselves against state power. That's all very well if the most serious assaults on your freedom are government attempts to regulate cigarette packaging. If the barriers to defining and realising your potential have more to do with homelessness, violence, poverty, or unfair discrimination, your freedom may require a bit more government.
Recognition of the importance of non-discrimination is one of the great contributions of the modern international human rights framework. Unlike some of the legal, political and philosophical traditions that preceded it, you don't have to be white, a man or a landowner to claim human rights protections.
Strip equality from human rights and we're left with a world where all humans are free, but some humans are more free than others.
Rachel Ball is director of advocacy and campaigns at the Human Rights Law Centre.