TONY SMITH. A flicker of interest in human rights

Nov 8, 2019

Foreign Minister Marise Payne recently incurred the wrath of China by daring to mention the treatment of the Uighurs. At first sight this might seem to signal the beginning of a new commitment to human rights by the Coalition Government. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister is leading domestic policy in the opposite direction.

As usual, the Prime Minister makes no concession to the possibility that his government’s policies could be responsible for some of the behaviour he seeks to condemn. The political spectrum is always broad and opinion and actions range from moderates who seek to work within the system to the apathetic on one side and the radical on the other. Usually, radicalism generates in response to a system which itself adopts extreme policies and presents these as mainstream, reasonable, impartial and universally beneficial.

Radicalism is the stance of a minority. The use of direct actions and demonstrations might be disruptive but these tactics also serve an educative purpose, raising public consciousness about issues which those in authority want to remain buried and silent. When the authorities will not acknowledge that minorities have a legitimate role and refuse to include them in consultations, then people become desperate. Historically, radicalism has been defined by governments when minority pressures threaten to shift the centre such that their support is undermined. This is happening in the area of climate change.

Prime Minister Morrison has made several disturbing pronouncements about what he considers to be extremism. First there was his general warning about globalism following meetings with the architect of British isolationism and the hyper-patriotic POTUS.. This swipe at internationalism is worrying given that adherence to United Nations covenants and openness to scrutiny offer the best hope of bringing dictatorial regimes into line with universal standards.

Secondly, he has suggested that financial institutions refusing to invest in industries which use his beloved coal are engaging in ‘secondary boycotts’. This notion was of course designed to condemn trades unions which went on strike over issues which did not directly affect members’ working conditions. If a Labor Government attempted to tell financial institutions where to invest, the uproar from Coalition ranks and from shareholders would be deafening. As usual, Morrison is trying to create an aggrieved constituency by suggesting that a silent majority of shareholders is being overwhelmed by a vocal minority opposed to fossil fuels.

Thirdly there is the proposal to remove the right to protest from those groups the prime minister judges to be radical. We have already heard the Minister in charge of homeland security attempting to besmirch demonstrators as drains on the public purse. It seems amazing that he managed to find time for this vilification when he is so busy demonising asylum seekers. These attempts to depict young radicals as extremists make no concession to the possibility that demonstrators take unlawful action because they have a conscientious commitment to an issue.

Perhaps this is because the Coalition government has no idea what a conscience might look like. Morrison’s begrudging response to climate campaigner Greta Thurnberg and his observation that children have a right not to be made anxious shows the level of cynicism which pervades his thinking. Obedience is not a characteristic we should encourage. Schools should enable idealism and independent thinking in their students. Those educational leaders who backed recent school protests about climate change are much more attuned to the needs of their charges than the old advocates of fossil fuels.

The last Australian political leader to try and prevent demonstrations was Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The appalling laws he passed were the subject of widespread ridicule as families were made into criminals by meeting for picnics which had not been authorised. The police force lost respect as it tried to enforce Bjelke-Petersen’s dictatorial laws.

Australian policy on human rights is in a mess, even if no bigger a mess than many other policies. Those in government make parenthood statements about freedom of speech and the right to information, about the importance of investigative journalism and fearless reporting. Yet they seem unable to understand when freedoms are threatened. It was no coincidence that a recent campaign by newspapers had front pages redacted. The notion that citizens have a right to the information on which they might judge government actions has become a joke.

It was not so long ago that the government planned to repeal anti-discrimination laws. In an appalling inversion of the notion of rights, the then Attorney-General reckoned that people have a right to be bigots. His suggestion raised the prospect that Holocaust deniers could receive protection. The most senior Liberal to declare that racism was always wrong was New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell. Almost overnight, O’Farrell lost office amidst mysterious revelations to the Independent Commission Against Corruption. The full story of O’Farrell’s fall is yet to be told.

By questioning the rights of protestors and threatening to curtail their activities, the prime minister gives tacit support to China’s actions in Hong Kong. There is an element here of flattery by imitation. Marise Payne’s long overdue and essentially very mild criticism of China’s treatment of the Uighurs is undermined by Coalition talk of limiting the right to protest. As usual, trade and self-interest drive our foreign policy.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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