A Day of Human Rights Ideas


Many of us have had that odd and alienating experience of addressing friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers with the imperative of injustices perpetrated by institutions – including governments – and watching their eyes glaze over. People with a keen sense of social justice or simply a sense of fairness who appear to have reached saturation point: how do we all keep talking and making sure that institutions serve their purpose?

This was one of the discussions swirling around at the recent Manning Clark House ‘Day of Ideas’ held in Perth, in association with the Holmes à Court Gallery and the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Western Australia. This year’s theme, Do we need a Human Rights Bill in Australia?, was deliberately chosen to tie in with the campaign being run by New Matilda.

We invited a mix of speakers who occupy positions of legal, political, and community activism to address what is needed during a period of uncertainty. One that arises from an erosion of trust and accountability: that parliament cannot be relied upon to do its work and neither can most of our institutions.

The keynote speaker was Lex Lasry QC, the Law Council of Australia’s official observer at the Guantanamo Bay Military Commission. He spoke about the principles of the Australian government’s actions regarding the two incarcerated Australian citizens, and compared these actions to those of other Western nations. He discussed how fear was being used to enable significant changes to what we understand to be our democratic rights. Lasry has the clarity and forthrightness of argument to push this debate into a palatable space for many who are intimidated by legal nuances.

We were keen for robust debate and we got it – particularly from Professor Greg Craven, a constitutional law expert, who attempted to separate out the desire for human rights protection from the mechanics of how to do it. He described his about-turn on a need for legislation from his observance of the Canadian system, and his scepticism that unrepresentative judges can be of any use to a consideration of human rights. Craven included a call to address the shortcomings of the parliamentary system directly rather than trying to apply a solution through the courts.

Dr Carmen Lawrence, MP, examined the intensification of fear in public policy and in our daily lives, and our failures in implementing international law. She sees a hierarchy of whose rights we should safeguard as a flawed idea.

The ACT Human Rights and Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Helen Watchirs, administers the first Human Rights Act in this country. Dr Watchirs suggested that the biggest impact of the Act has been in influencing the formulation of government policy and new legislation. Under the Act, all government Bills are required to have a compatibility statement prepared by the Attorney-General. An important aim of this Act is to create a human rights culture, rather than merely focussing on litigation. Community education has been an important priority, with training available across the community.

John Menadue, Chair of New Matilda, outlined the rationale of their campaign. While a signatory to the United Nation’s two principal human rights covenants, Australia has not acted to give these covenants force of law. According to United Nations findings we have breached international obligations in a range of areas including mandatory detention and the protection of our indigenous peoples. Our anti-terrorism legislation may, too, overstep the obligations. As New Matilda‘s argument states: Without specific Australian legislation embodying the provisions of the international covenants, these breaches remain lawful.

Other speakers included Natalie Hepburn, Guild President at the University of Western Australia, who spoke of her generation’s understanding of what might be described as a ‘bedrock of rights’ and how, from this position, the crawl back is seen in pretty sharp relief. Yvonne Henderson, the state’s Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, sketched the landscape of more than twenty years of legislation and action in equal opportunity, and Karen Brown, The Australian newspaper’s Western Australian editor, ably attended to a barrage of criticism about media standards and narrow news agendas. The State Attorney General, Jim McGinty MLA, gave an overview of some of the reforming work he had generated and steered through in Western Australia in the last four years.

There was much discussion over the weekend about the patchy understanding we have as a community of the culture of rights, of our obligations in line with these rights; the widespread disengagement from this model by citizens everywhere with, perhaps, encouragement from government. And all along we had the horror of New Orleans playing out as white noise accompaniment.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.