'We need to have some hard conversations': Rosalind Croucher on human rights reform

By Shannon Jenkins

July 29, 2019

Rosalind Croucher Source: The Australian Human Rights Commission

The President of the Australian Human Rights Commission wants to “get above politics”.

Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM spoke to a crowd of lawyers, students, activists and human rights leaders alike in her Melbourne presentation to the Castan Centre human rights conference on Friday.

“We seem to have lost sight of the overall purpose of protecting the human rights of the whole community,” Croucher said.

“Our legislation is not comprehensive in its protection. Our discrimination law is complex and does not protect everyone in our community. And while our discrimination laws are important, as they directly reflect our international commitments and can achieve many positive systemic outcomes, but they’re framed in the negative of what you can’t do, and rely on a dispute before offering a solution.”

Croucher argued that when Australia’s human rights system was introduced in the 1980s, it was innovative, “but has now been surpassed well and truly by developments in other countries”.

The system must be “reimagined”.

Croucher stepped into her presidential role two years ago, following her predecessor Gillian Triggs.

READ MORE: Triggs: public servants should know human rights obligations

When coming into the role, Croucher recognised that human rights debate had been “divisive” and “pitted people against each other”.

“The debates have been myopic, and they’ve been focused on what I’ve described as individual spotfire issues, without considering the broader landscape in which they occur,” she said.

Such issues have been “resolved” with “stalemates” that merely divide people rather than bring about meaningful change.

Croucher noted that the problem with Australia’s human rights system is not influenced by any one major party.

“I found it most instructive to get out a red and blue pen — red for Labor, blue for Coalition — and I went down a list of all the conventions that we’ve signed, and their ratifications. And blow me down if you don’t get an equal split,” she said.

“The problem, though, is when the pattern of human rights is framed around the language of dispute, has meant that each time a new controversy arises — freedom of religion being the most recent example — people are so entrenched in their views that the broader conversation we need to have is not the one we actually end up having.

“What concerns me about this, is that human rights are not being properly considered.”

National reform

Croucher said the AHRC is “embarking on an ambitious program” over the coming year that points to multiple actions across multiple areas, which began in April with the release of an issues paper.

It is exploring ways to integrate human rights into Australia’s national law, policy and programs “so that human rights become a deliberative tool to aid better government decisions and are not just chucked in as an afterthought”.

The government must “start with respect”, by ensuring its own actions do not breach human rights. Furthermore, human rights must be protected in Australian law, remedies must be provided when breaches occur, and there should be mechanisms that “enable the participation of affected groups in law and policymaking”. Examples of such mechanisms would be an Indigenous voice in Parliament, as well as the principle of free, informed consent in disability policies and actions, Indigenous policies and in the approach to elder abuse.

After looking at itself, the government must then “prevent others from breaching rights”, by creating laws that make discrimination unlawful and providing remedies for breaches.

“Another protective action is through human rights education and issues that build awareness of rights and responsibilities in the community,” Croucher said.

According to Croucher, “positive, proactive steps” to address known inequalities are needed — like the Close the Gap campaign. Planning and measurement frameworks, such as a national action plan on human rights, are also necessary.

Through a national conversation, the AHRC hopes to “have people think about the measures across all of these domains that are needed if we are to truly realise and fully protect human rights, to embed human rights in our national psyche.”

Croucher said by mid next year, with the aim of protecting human rights and freedoms, the AHRC intends to:

  • Recommend an agenda for federal law reform;
  • Recommend priorities for reforming federal discrimination law;
  • “Articulate key actions that all governments must take”;
  • Identify how community understanding and partnerships can be built; and
  • Identify options to invest in community capacity.

“It’s a big agenda,” she said.

In regards to technical papers, Croucher said, over the next 12 weeks the AHRC will:

  • Release a discussion paper setting out a federal discrimination law reform agenda;
  • Convene a technical workshop on a national accountability mechanism for human rights; and
  • Release a further discussion paper applying proposed reforms to federal law and policy to positively frame human rights, “moving them from reactive tools to proactive considerations”.

There will also be a series of technical workshops over the coming months to consider the discussion papers, as well as general community consultations nationally. 

Croucher concluded her presentation with a call to action:

“Our system for protecting human rights is simply not good enough.

“We do not have a sufficient level of proficiency or fluency to converse in human rights terms when discussing issues of major concern to the community.

“There is a lack of common purpose about what humans rights outcomes we aspire to achieve as a nation, so that we can be the best that we can possibly be.

“We need to have some hard conversations to identify the priorities for action and reform and the basis on which we balance competing interests.”

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