Human Rights and National Pride


What a wonderful Tasmanian irony that the very week we sit down to discuss a National Human Rights Act, and the State Government announces its plan to investigate a Tasmanian equivalent, our Shadow Attorney-General, Michael Hodgman, has reminded us why human rights guarantees are so important.

He thinks an artwork featuring Jesus surrounded by pictures of gay men should be censored because of the offence it might cause some Christians.

Somehow it seems unlikely that he will adopt the same stance on the Danish cartoons that have made some Muslims so angry.

Dissent, controversial ideas, free speech, and human rights generally, are easy to support when the fuss is far away.

Contemporary Tasmania is well acquainted with the violation, in its own backyard, of the human rights of sexual and gender minorities.

The biggest act of gay rights civil disobedience in Australian history occurred in Hobart’s Salamanca Market in 1988, when the Tasmanian Police, at the behest of the Hobart City Council, detained 130 people over seven consecutive Saturday mornings, for staffing and supporting a gay law reform stall the Council had banned.

For many of the people who defended that stall the issue was clearly one of freedom of speech and assembly.

If the stall’s petitions, earnest literature and fundraising tins could so easily fall foul of petty prejudice, which controversial cause or social minority would be next?

I was arrested four times during the Salamanca Incident. I was a young, naïve fellow just out of the closet, who was gaoled for being gay before I’d even danced with another man.

But in the absence of any guarantees of our human rights, nothing could be done but return each week to the Market and hope our defiance would gather support and win the day, which eventually it did.

The defiance my colleagues and I learnt at Salamanca served us well over the coming years as we campaigned to decriminalise gay sex in the last State to penalise it.

Here too a national or local guarantee of basic human rights would have made an important difference.

Instead, we were left with two, much less certain avenues of appeal: one to the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, and the other directly to the hearts and minds of our fellow Tasmanians.

It took almost a decade, but both appeals eventually coalesced into an irresistible local and national movement for reform.

At times the response of the local authorities to this movement was even more repression: book bans, film bans, threats, intimidation – all of which are case studies in the need for human rights guarantees.

But when change finally occurred in Tasmania it was as if a dam burst.

Out flowed some of the best anti-discrimination and relationship laws in the world, laws which, ironically, highlighted how backward the nation has grown in the same areas.

Australian national law offers fewer protections from unfair treatment on the grounds of sexual orientation, and gives fewer spousal rights to same-sex couples, than the national law of any other western country except the United States.

Clearly a national Human Rights Bill would make a difference here.

Would a Human Rights Act lead inevitably to same-sex marriage?

That’s what the opponents of this Bill will say, but are they right about this?

The international experience shows that sometimes Bills of Rights can be crucial to achieving marriage equality, and sometimes they can be next-to-useless.

The US Bill of Rights is a paradigm for human rights charters the world over, but that nation’s record in this area is appalling.

What we can be sure of, is that a Human Rights Bill will foster mature and rational debate on equality in areas like marriage, and place that debate firmly in the context in which it belongs, the honouring of human dignity.

So far, I’ve acknowledged that our current system of laws does not adequately protect the basic human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and that the abuses we have suffered, and continue to suffer, demand human rights guarantees.

Well, for the next few moments, please forget all that.

We should have a sense of pride in our human rights achievements as an island community and as a nation.

Australians are much more likely to support a Human Rights Act if it is presented as the logical outcome and ultimate guarantor of our sense of fair play.

Shake it in our faces as the antidote to our apathy and ignorance, as the cloudburst that will make the Australian human rights desert bloom, and you’ll guarantee it will be resented and spurned.

But we should not ignore past and current abuses. Our most shameful, inhuman acts as a nation often come from the same point in our conflicted hearts as our greatest achievements. To ignore the former is to diminish the latter.

However, we need to be reminded that our forebears were some of the first people in the world to fight for and grant women the vote, that we have a tradition of guaranteeing human rights, as can be seen for example in the freedom of conscience and religion entrenched in the Tasmanian Constitution, that as well as the racism that marred Federation there was a profound commitment from architects of the National Constitution, like Tasmania’s Andrew Inglis Clark, to comprehensive human rights guarantees.

We need to be reminded that Clark’s dream eventually came true when Australia voted as resoundingly as any free nation has ever voted to endorse racial legal equality in 1967, that we are still one of only a handful of countries that allows individuals to appeal against human rights abuses on the international stage, and that at least one of these appeals, against Tasmania’s former anti-gay laws, lead to ground-breaking national laws guaranteeing the right to sexual privacy.

It’s not hard to imagine a Human Rights Act simply saying to Australians, be ashamed of your transgressions and backwardness.

It should go beyond this to say: be proud that when we open our hearts to others, and dedicate ourselves to mutual respect, we can build a great and good society.

Where it might demand, this is what Australia should be, it should declare this is what Australia has been, in many ways remains, and inevitably will be again.

Where it might be the hole into which we pour our despair and anger, it should become a beacon of optimism and hope.

If there is one key constructive criticism of the New Matilda draft Human Rights Bill, it’s that it speaks too softly of the achievements upon which it draws.

Those who read it need to know that the freedom of conscience and right to privacy it protects are amplifications of existing protections, not strange new visitors from another legal world.

If Australians feel revitalised and emboldened by this Bill, build up rather than torn down by it, support for its passage, observance of its provisions, and fealty to its spirit, will be the inevitably result.

This is based on an Address by Rodney Croome to New Matilda’s Human Rights Act for Australia Forum at Hobart Town Hall on 11February 2006.

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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.