A review of the Government's response to the Brennan Report in 2014 may finally see the idea of a human right charter in Australia succeed, writes Michael Kirby, and provide an opportunity to mark the centenary of the ANZAC day landing in 2015.
The recent announcement by the federal government that it had rejected the unanimous recommendation of the Brennan inquiry that Australia should enact a national charter of rights is a great disappointment to many Australians. Whilst the government's new proposals for a human rights "Framework" are to be welcomed, they are no substitute for the real thing. As Professor George Williams has observed: "The people with power don't want to give it up." "Self-regulation by politicians", when it comes to human rights, is "the problem, and not the solution".
So why are Australians so frightened about a charter of rights? Why would our politicians of different political persuasions join together in opposition to a charter or in a deafening silence that allows this desirable idea once again to be put on the backburner? Why do we have to await a braver time when more vocal parliamentary champions of the idea emerge, as happened earlier in Britain and New Zealand? We can be sure of one thing: the idea of a human rights charter is not dead in Australia. The idea has not succeeded this time. But succeed eventually it will.
In its new "Framework" for human rights protection the federal government has promised a review of its response to the Brennan Committee's report. That review is to take place in 2014. This would be in time for any action to be decided by the Federal Parliament in 2015. That year will be the centenary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli in Turkey in 1915. The Prime Minister has recently announced the creation of a committee to reflect upon the way in which our country should mark that centenary. I propose a task worth of that committee.
The national celebration of ANZAC Day in 2010 showed once again how our nation yearns for an occasion when it can honour its war dead and their sacrifices. It also searches its collective memory and feelings for what are the truly important values that bind us together as Australians. In default of another acceptable occasion, we feel deeply about ANZAC Day. Yet why did the brave young soldiers travel to Gallipoli? Are there valid reasons for remembering ANZAC today, nearly a century on?
For some, the attraction of Gallipoli in 1915 was the call to arms and adventure - a rare chance in those days for ordinary Australians to travel overseas. For some, it was a matter of loyalty to the King, when Britain itself was in danger. For some, it was a realisation that they were fighting a war amongst Empires on the side of the British Empire - the most benign then and after, which was our Empire, to which Australia belonged.
If they thought about these things, the young ANZAC soldiers would probably have realised that Australia's economic fate was bound up with Britain's and that a world in which Britannia still ruled the waves was a better and safer world, particularly from Australia's point of view. Safer by far than a world ruled by the militaristic regimes of Imperial Germany and Austria. Few of the ideas for which Gallipoli was fought in 1915 remain relevant today. For the most part, all that is left is the story of individual courage by the soldiers who went where their government decided they should go. As others did, after them and as some still do today.
So what are the values that unite Australians today? Surely they would be the values that we should ascribe to the brave soldiers who fought under hellish gunfire, died in muddy trenches and then in the dead of night, retreated from the Dardanelles or fought in the other theatres of war or served peace-keeping. I believe that the universal values of human rights are the real values of the Australian nation - the nation of a "fair go" for all. They constitute a noble aspiration that we should ascribe to the valour of the ANZACS. Certainly, we should attribute to them something about values. Something about human dignity and equality. Something positive not just the furtherance of imperial power. Something that binds Australians together today and is affirmative.
For the moment, the hopes of an early Australian charter of rights have been dashed. For the time being, Australia will remain the only civilized, country in the modern world without a national law of universal rights. But when the review is conducted in 2014, we must hope for a more informed debate than we have had this time in the major political parties, in parliament itself and in the wider Australian society.
Australia has, after all, had an appalling record in its treatment of minorities: Aboriginals, Asians, people of colour, gays, minority religions, communists, refugee applicants etc. Certainly, ours is not a history to justify complacency and self-satisfaction that parliament always and promptly fixes up injustices. An opportunity to add a genuine equality discourse to our national culture has been lost this time round. Once again, those with political power have refused to share that power with the people. Those who feel the injustice of this decision must be better organised on the next attempt. Next time, they must ensure that the idea of a charter of rights is achieved. So they must have a goal and an aspiration worthy of the occasion.
On the centenary of Gallipoli 2015, Australians should aspire to redefine the national ideals and values of Australia for the century ahead:
- From reverence of an act of war to celebration of an act of law and peace;
- From remembering a military failure to acknowledging a great civic success;
- From recalling an imperial adventure, far from Australia, to achieving true citizen empowerment within Australia and on our own soil; and
- From reflecting on courage, death and bloodshed to a proclamation of the equality and dignity of all people in Australia as an active democracy.
- Australia can be a microcosm and example for the entire world - multicultural, accepting diversity and effectively protecting and teaching universal human rights in ways that this time, once again, has been rejected.
This is an edited extract from a lecture delivered by Former Justice of the High Court of Australia, Michael Kirby, today in Adelaide to the Effective Living Centre
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