The myth of Australia as a land of the 'fair go'

Stephanie Batsakis

Australia prides itself on being the land of the ‘fair go’ and yet from an international perspective, this reputation has been tarnished by our recent human rights record. Persistent human rights violations across both Howard and Rudd governments demonstrate that a federal Human Rights Act is the only way to bring us into line with international human rights standards.

While Australia is signatory to all five international treaties of the international bill of human rights, it is no secret that Australia’s domestic policies have increasingly disregarded these obligations since the Howard government assumed leadership in 1996. According to the United Nations Association of Australia, by 2006 ‘Australia slipped further behind the rest of its class’ and was criticised for ‘continuing to legislate and operate in breach of human rights commitments’.

The UN Human Rights Committee has heard 52 complaints against Australia since 1993, 21 of which have found Australia to be guilty of violating rights contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While complaints before 1996 were met with federal action, every complaint since 1996 has been rejected by the Australian government. Fundamental human rights such as the right to humane treatment, children’s rights, the right to non-discrimination and the right to liberty were found to be violated by Australia and were not acted upon.

Recent action by the Rudd government on human rights has caused the international community to commend our change in direction. For example, Amnesty International’s 2009 Report praised the apology to members of the Stolen Generations, the establishment of a National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, the abolishment of temporary protection visas and legislation to remove discrimination against same-sex couples and their children.

Even during 2009, however, continued violations of human rights have caused the international community to regard our positive developments with wariness. When Amnesty International’s secretary general visited a remote indigenous community this year, she commented that ‘for a country which by human development standards is the third most developed in the world … such a level of poverty is inexcusable, unexpected and unacceptable’.

In March, the UN Human Rights Committee condemned Australia’s persistent policies on the Northern Territory intervention, mandatory immigration detention, and the excessive use of police force. A key issue, raised repeatedly, was that Australia remains the only liberal democracy without human rights enshrined in law.

A significant outcome of this blemished reputation is a reduced bargaining position in diplomatic relations. In February a Northern Territory Aboriginal group put in a request for urgent intervention to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, due to the devastating impact of the intervention on their lives.

Shortly after, when Australia tried to criticise China’s human rights record at universal periodic review hearings in 2009, China raised this recent request as evidence of our hypocritical poor rights performance. It is imperative that Australia practises what it preaches in order to effectively promote the benefits of human rights to developing states.

More than anything, this recent history of human rights abuse demonstrates that our current human rights protection is far from adequate. As noted repeatedly by other western states and several branches of the UN, Australia urgently needs a federal Human Rights Act.

Without one, Australian courts remain severely constrained as to the extent to which they can apply human rights standards, especially compared to courts in the United States, New Zealand and Europe. A Human Rights Act will provide a much needed parameter for government behaviour, it will bring the issue of human rights to the forefront of public discussion, and importantly it will be a major step in reinstating our reputation as a land of the ‘fair go’.

Stephanie Batsakis is a Liberty Victoria volunteer.