Many vote with their wallets, but our hearts and consciences should be heard

23 June 2016

The protection of human rights is a basic test of a government's decency, writes Professor Ben Saul.

Shadow of a man. Image: Freeimages.com

Elections are fought and won in middle Australia.

Sadly it is no surprise that the most disadvantaged people in our country are not at the centre of political campaigns.

The international human rights standards endorsed by Australia are a basic test of how well a government treats its people. After three years in power, a government seeking another term should first be held accountable for its human rights performance.

The Turnbull/Abbott government can claim some achievements, like implementing Labor's National Disability Insurance Scheme, acting against gender violence, and resettling an extra 12,000 refugees from the Middle East. But the government can sing its own praises. I will sing its failures.

Let's start with economic, social and cultural rights, which ensure human survival, dignity, and life opportunity. They include rights to adequate, affordable and accessible healthcare, education, housing, and food. They also include opportunities to work, decent working conditions, and social security to maintain a decent standard of living.

Among the severest rights violations is that more than 2.5 million Australians, including 600,000 children, live in poverty. This is about 14 percent of our population, and almost one in five children, despite Australia being among the world's richest countries.

Australians who are down on their luck, such as the unemployed, are often forced into poverty by grossly inadequate welfare payments. Young people without jobs are hardest hit. Pensioners, too, face a daily struggle for a decent life.

Healthcare is increasingly inaccessible and unaffordable for some Australians. Mental healthcare, and health services in prisons and indigenous communities, are especially inadequate. Public education remains significantly underfunded.

The economic and social rights of Indigenous Australians remain unfulfilled across health, housing, employment and education. Indigenous communities are denied the right to determine their own future, because they lack representative political bodies, economic independence, and social and legal equality. Native title processes are too cumbersome.

Consultation with Indigenous peoples on decision-making is inadequate. Victims of the stolen generations and of stolen wages largely remain uncompensated.

Some policies, such as the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, remain discriminatory.

Criminal justice outcomes are still poor, including over-imprisonment, deaths in custody, and mandatory minimum sentences.

The government is also badly underperforming on civil and political rights. Despite the Attorney General's concern for "traditional rights and freedoms", the government has virtually ignored the Australian Law Reform Commission's report identifying many concerns.

Gender inequality remains profound, including in a pronounced wage gap and in leadership in business, politics and the professions.

Whistleblowers in the immigration and security areas are punished, not protected. The government has not quashed state laws that penalise legitimate environmental protest.

Excessive counter-terrorism laws violate numerous freedoms, including liberty, privacy, expression, association, movement, and a fair trial.

Thousands of asylum seekers have languished in illegal, unjustified detention, often in cruel, inhuman or degrading conditions. On Australia's watch, people have been beaten to death, raped, and burnt alive.

Many aspects of our border protection and offshore processing policies violate international law and put refugees' safety at risk. The unjustifiable secrecy of maritime operations thwarts transparency and corrodes democratic accountability.

The government divisively favoured a "right to be bigot", encouraging the abuse of free speech and stoking racism. At the same time, it deprives Australians of marriage equality and squanders public money on an unnecessary plebiscite.

In relation to all rights, the government has not created effective enforcement mechanisms. There is no bill of rights to protect Australians against human rights abuses.

The government has even wound back judicial safeguards, and often overridden common law rights.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has been unfairly politicised and underfunded. It remains deprived of power to protect economic, social and cultural rights.

Access to justice for victims is inhibited by underfunding of legal aid - a shortfall of $226 million by Law Council of Australia estimates.

The government has also defunded civil society groups that advocate in the public interest.

Finally, Australia's protection of human rights overseas is being drastically undermined by the slashing of foreign aid to a historic low of 0.22 percent of GDP.

The hip pocket understandably affects how many will vote. But many voters also understand that the protection of human rights is a basic test of a government's decency.

Professor Ben Saul is Challis Chair of International Law at the University of Sydney Law School and the incoming Whitlam and Fraser chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University. He is a member of the Law Council's National Human Rights Committee. This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Division of Humanities and Social Sciences)