October 31st 2009

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY / EDITORIAL: Australia's asylum-seeker policy unravels

CANBERRA OBSERVED: The toughest job in Australian politics

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: How the human rights consultation was hijacked

TAX INQUIRY: Treasury push to get more mothers into paid work

CLIMATE CHANGE: Temperature readings in rural Australia show no increase in 100 years

ENERGY: New gas resources explode "peak oil" alarmism

NATIONAL SECURITY: How much longer can Australia's luck hold?

CHINA: How the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wields absolute power in China

ECONOMICS: The taming of unbridled free market capitalism

REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH: Women not warned about abortion breast-cancer risk

VICTORIA: Protesting on behalf of the unborn

OBITUARY: Last surviving leader of 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising dies: Marek Edelman (1919-2009)

CINEMA: "Deeply troubling" rags-to-riches story: Mao's Last Dancer (rated PG)

BOOK REVIEW: BEERSHEBA: A Journey Through Australia's Forgotten War, by Paul Daley

BOOK REVIEW: REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN EUROPE: Immigration, Islam and the West, by Christopher Caldwell

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How the human rights consultation was hijacked

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, October 31, 2009
The National Human Rights Consultation Committee, appointed by the Federal Labor Government to investigate human rights in Australia, has predictably recommended that the Federal Parliament enact a federal human rights act, overriding widespread opposition to such a measure in both the community and in Parliament.

The consultation was conducted by Father Frank Brennan, the chairman; Philip Flood, a former career diplomat; journalist Mary Kostakidis; lawyer and former police commissioner Mick Palmer; and indigenous lawyer, Tammy Williams.

The committee invited public participation, and said that it had received over 35,000 submissions, "the largest number ever for a national consultation in Australia".

However, things are not what they appear to be. The report, in chapter 12, claimed: "A considerable degree of community support for a federal Human Rights Act was expressed during the Committee's consultations."

It said, "Of the 35,014 submissions the Committee received, 33,356 (95 per cent) discussed the option of enacting a charter of rights or a Human Rights Act. Of these, 29,153 (87.4 per cent) were in favour of this option, leaving 4,203 (12.6 per cent) opposed to it."

However, the fine print in the committee's report puts these figures in a somewhat different light. In chapter 15, the report said, "It was the question of a Human Rights Act that prompted GetUp!, Amnesty International Australia and the Australian Christian Lobby to conduct public campaigns during the Consultation: of the 29,153 submissions in favour of a Human Rights Act, 26,382 were campaign submissions" (Chapter 15.4). In other words, they came from people who had pushed buttons on a web site.

If one excludes the "campaign submissions", only 2,771 were in favour of a human rights act, and 4,203 opposed it (on the committee's calculations), a far cry from the overwhelming support which the committee maintained supported federal legislation.

There were other interesting anomalies in the report.

Despite the committee's claim that human rights are not adequately protected, research commissioned by the committee itself showed that most people firmly believe that the opposite is true.

The committee commissioned a report from Colmar Brunton Social Research in order to gauge the views of the broader community, including people who might not have participated directly in the consultation process.

It reported that "Colmar Brunton Social Research found 'only 10 per cent of people reported that they had ever had their rights infringed in any way, with another 10 per cent who reported that someone close to them had had their rights infringed'."

It also found: "Sixty-four per cent of survey respondents agreed that human rights in Australia are adequately protected; only 7 per cent disagreed; the remaining 29 per cent were uncommitted."

To counter this view, the committee reported that of "8,671 submissions that expressed a view on the adequacy or inadequacy of the present system ... 2,551 thought human rights were adequately protected, whereas 6,120 (70 per cent) thought they were not."

The obvious conclusion is that most believe that human rights in Australia are adequately protected, and those who made submissions to the inquiry are unrepresentative of ordinary Australians. Yet they are put forward as representing the views of mainstream Australia.

On the basis of its consultation, the Brennan Committee has recommended the establishment of a national human rights act which will give further power to judges and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), neither of which are in any direct way accountable to the people.

The committee claimed that human rights in Australia are not adequately protected, particularly in relation to the Northern Territory intervention in Aboriginal communities, asylum-seekers, and the marginalised.

What is of interest is that these issues attracted the interest of only a small minority of all submissions.

Of the 35,000 submissions received - many of which were from the human rights industry - only 1,309 (4 per cent) raised concerns about racism, 581 (1.7 per cent) indigenous rights, 235 (0.7 per cent) the Northern Territory Intervention, and 191 (0.5 per cent) the Racial Discrimination Act (Chapter 15).

It is clear that the consultation was hijacked by political and human rights activists, and its conclusions reflect their views and not those of a majority who, the committee acknowledges, believe that Australians live in "one of the world's great democracies" and that within this country, most people are convinced "their rights are adequately secured" through existing laws and processes.

- Editor's note: This article has been corrected with thanks to Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO see News Weekly, December 12, 2009.

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