Don't Let Them Kill The Bill


It was all so predictable. On 15 June, the final day of submissions to the National Human Rights Consultation, the "No Bill" campaign embarked on a carefully planned media blitz, coming shortly after the launch of the Menzies Research Centre’s book, Don’t leave us with the Bill.

With Australian war hero, prominent Catholic and all-round nice guy, Major Peter Cosgrove as guest speaker, extracts of the book had been read out to applause, and were distributed for publication in mainstream papers. The event and the book, which aim to scuttle support for a federal human rights act before it’s even drafted, were well timed and received national airplay.

And where was the Australian Human Rights Group at that moment — the loose affiliation of organisations, supposed to be providing strategic leadership for the pro-rights campaign on this important day? Where was GetUp?

Only Amnesty International seemed to recognise the importance of the submission process as media stunt, handing over 10,000 individual submissions to Consultation Panel member Mary Kostakidis.

At this moment the campaign for a human rights act hangs in the balance. While submissions from the usual suspects of community legal centres and human rights academics may be enough to persuade the consultation panel to make a supportive finding, it is unlikely to move conservative members of the ALP Cabinet or parliamentary caucus. It’s also unlikely to inspire Senators Fielding and Xenophon, whose vote will be needed to get the law over the line. A groundswell of public support for a human rights act — whether actual or illusory — is crucial to the success of the campaign.

At this stage, it is hard to see any motivating of public opinion — or any strategy for that matter — coming from the Australian Human Rights Group. The media management is reactive and limited to letters to the editor. There have been no broad-based national information campaigns and events designed to attract media attention. The campaign suffers greatly from having no centralised pro-rights branding — no campaign slogan, posters or stickers, or other pro-rights paraphernalia to generate public support in a practical way.

Instead, all the focus, so far, has been on preparing lengthy, technical legal submissions. And while a record number of 34,000 submissions has been received, thanks to the help of GetUp and Amnesty, the sophisticated e-advocacy we have become used to from both organisations has been less than brilliant. The campaign for a human rights act seems not to be core business for either organisation.

Also conspicuous by its absence in the campaign is the ACTU. Given that the "Your Rights at Work" campaign — the most effective political campaign in decades — had rights rhetoric on TV every night for a year, you’d think the pro-rights alliance would want to build on that success by seeking to engage the union movement. But it hasn’t.

Blame for the misplaced strategy must fall on the hubris of academic and professional lawyers who are the people largely behind the campaign.

There is more than just a touch of elitism in the decision of the Australian Human Rights Group to steer away from mass participatory techniques of traditional progressive organising. Many lawyers, particularly top-end-of-town, pro bono types, enjoy the separation from the great unwashed that the client-lawyer relationship affords them. The concept of engaging with real people — through rallies and via broad based education campaigns — is anathema to them. So too is explaining rights in everyday language.

Further, there is a real lack of knowledge among lawyers about how best to engage in political advocacy. Lawyers lobby with an obsessive reliance on submission writing. The profession’s dependence on the written word skews their campaigning towards passive lobbying, rather than the face-to-face and behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that is required to transform policy into law.

There may also be another explanation for the lack of campaign activity from the Australian Human Rights Group — a misplaced belief in the small target.

In the lead up to the Victorian Human Rights Consultation in 2006, it was commonly understood within progressive circles that for the Victorian state government to enact a human rights act, it would be necessary for human rights advocates to maintain a low profile. Activists were persuaded by bureaucrats and senior members of the ALP not to use the media too much or engage in on-the-ground community advocacy, for fear of stirring up anti-rights forces.

Ultimately, the small target strategy achieved its objectives in Victoria, with the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities stealthily shepherded through Parliament by Attorney-General Rob Hulls with little public discussion.

There were of course some important losers out of this process: ordinary people. The combination of a poorly advertised consultation period, the enactment of legislation without an individual complaint mechanism and the failure by the State Government to allocate a sufficient budget for community education, has done very little to raise the appreciation of human rights within Victorian voters.

The small-target strategy has never been viable for a federal human rights campaign. This is because the anti-rights movement nationally is formidable, as the recent book launch bears out. Three things make the "No Bill" campaign a force to be reckoned with.

Firstly, the No Bill campaign has at its disposal a national broadsheet, the Australian. The Oz steadfastly refuses to publish pieces in support of a human rights act, offering its pages instead to a weekly barrage of opinion pieces from the No Bill campaign. With other News Ltd newspapers hostile to rights and the Fairfax papers lukewarm at best, the Australian‘s journalistic activism is a significant problem for progressives.

Further, the No Bill campaign is spearheaded by Bob Carr. The ALP heavyweight had been peddling the No Bill cause for at least a year before the consultation was announced. With direct access to Parliament House, the ear of key decision makers in Cabinet and a history while Premier of NSW of stripping the rights of injured people to sue, only a highly organised and disciplined human rights campaign will defeat him.

Finally, the No Bill campaign has aligned its hatred for human rights laws with the hard religious right. Recently, at the invitation of the Catholic Archdiocese in Melbourne, Carr spoke with Jim Wallace, head of the Australian Christian Lobby and Professor Greg Craven, Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, on why rights laws were a threat to decent Christian people.

Christians, the ACL tells us, should be opposed to a bill of rights because it provides no protection for the unborn. Carr, dog whistler par excellence, hopes to stir the pro-life forces within his own party and the Cabinet to defeat the bill.

None of this should be a surprise to progressives. The Australian Human Rights Group, and the many individual pro-rights organisations within its network, have known for years that the No Bill campaign would be real, highly organised and well connected. There is no excuse besides poor planning for failing to win the human rights debate this time.

As a supporter of a human rights act for Australia, I am disappointed in the campaign so far. The campaign is not just about a legal document. It’s an entire framework for governing that places compassion for the individual and respect for human dignity ahead of corporate and government interests. A human rights act in Australia is therefore fundamental to the future of the progressive movement in Australia and deserves a disciplined, well funded and slick campaign strategy.

Human rights advocates — you need to take a great leap forward. Get out of the comfort of your academic ivory towers, away from the legal precincts of William Street and Queens Square and start talking rights with ordinary people. Stop having a sook over the press not running your well researched (but dead boring) analysis of international human rights covenants, and start holding rallies, online happenings and a fundraising event or two. Work the media. Get someone young and YouTube friendly to be your spokesperson. And start talking about how rights are the rules of fair play, not hard-to-grasp legal principles.

And while you’re at it put out a goddamn badge or something I can wear! The human rights revolution is just a t-shirt away.

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.