What is Australia’s Role in the World?

Human rights, foreign policy and Australia’s national identity: why aren’t we talking more about Australian values and identity this election campaign, asks Phil Lynch

Of the myriad issues inadequately covered in the election campaign thus far,  Australian values and identity — and the question of how these values shape the way we understand our role and responsibility in the world — rank high.  In the leaders’ debate, for example, the only discussion of Australian foreign policy and our place in the world arose in the context of the “Timor Solution” and the war in Afghanistan.

This is not the way things should be.  With real leadership, elections present an opportunity to tap into admirable but often latent aspects of national identity, a concept explored by Canadian political scientist Alison Brysk in her new book, Global Good Samaritans: Human Rights as Foreign Policy. Why, Brysk asks, do a small number of countries sacrifice their national interest to promote human rights and help strangers? Her answer is simple: they don’t. Instead, she explains, countries such as Sweden, Canada and the Netherlands have nurtured national identities that have a deep commitment to human rights at their core. Global good samaritans, Brysk posits, see the “blood, treasure, and political capital they contribute to human rights as an investment, not a loss”. Both at the local and international levels, they have learned to see themselves, she says, “as interconnected members of a community that works best for everyone when human rights are respected”.

What I’d really like to see in this election is our national leaders appealing to and mobilising the most constructive and admirable aspects of Australia’s national identity and committing to the nation’s development as a principled, persistent, fearless and forceful human rights champion in the region and on the international stage.

Certainly, we are well placed to be an effective human rights promoter. We are democratic and politically stable. We are globalised and multicultural. We have an active and well networked civil society. We enjoy low levels of social stratification and high levels of economic development. We are a secure regional middle power.

We also have much to gain from pursuing the human rights agenda and much to lose in failing to do so. The positive side of the ledger includes the development of more stable and predictable international and regional policy environments, enhanced international credibility and diplomatic capital, strengthened policy coherence, and the mobilisation of universal, unifying national values. Conversely, a failure to multilaterally address urgent human rights challenges, such as climate change and food and water insecurity, will have grave implications for global, regional and national peace, security and development.

What then, could Australia do to most actively and effectively contribute to the agenda of making human rights a human reality in the 21st century?

As a first step, Australia should develop a comprehensive strategy on human rights and foreign policy. That strategy should mainstream human rights across all areas of Australian foreign affairs, including aid, development, trade, investment, migration, environment, business and security. It should contain concrete measures and commitments to promote and protect human rights in the region and internationally. Such a policy could enhance our international reputation as a human rights leader and build significant diplomatic capital.

Australia’s 2013-2014 UN Security Council candidacy could be a flagship for this policy. As a Security Council candidate, we should commit to taking a principled, persistent and consistent approach to human rights internationally and to ensuring that our domestic policies and practices are human rights compliant. We should use our Security Council candidacy to promote our national interest in international human rights, the rule of law and good governance.

Australia should similarly take a proactive and principled approach to the UN Human Rights Council, whether as an active observer state or member. We have an important role in ensuring the Council fulfils its mandate, and achieves its potential, as the leading multilateral forum for the discussion, promotion and enforcement of human rights.

Both through the Security Council and other international and regional bodies, including trade and financial institutions, we should push a fearless and forceful human rights agenda. This agenda should address existing human rights challenges – including poverty, financial instability and inequality – and pursue progressive initiatives, including operationalisation of the responsibility to protect, the abolition of the death penalty, the advancement of Indigenous peoples globally, and the regulation of business and human rights.

It is often observed that human rights begin at home. The fulfilment of human rights at home is inextricably linked with our national identity and our capacity and ability to promote human rights abroad. Domestic human rights protection must be recognised as a core aspect of any comprehensive and coherent foreign human rights policy.

In order for Australia to adopt not only a principled and consistent, but also effective, approach to human rights in international affairs — from the death penalty, to child labour, to people trafficking, to a regional solution on asylum-seekers — human rights must become core business in internal affairs. As US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently recognised, “By holding ourselves accountable, we reinforce our moral authority to demand that all governments adhere to obligations under international law.”

Australia’s status as the only Western democracy without a national human rights law undermines our authority and legitimacy on international human rights issues and in regional human rights dialogues. A national Human Rights Act — rejected by the Rudd/Gillard Government – could promote more responsive and accountable government, improve public services, and enshrine fundamental values such as freedom, dignity, respect and a fair go. Perhaps most importantly, however, a comprehensive national Human Rights Act could provide a framework for international, regional and domestic policy coordination and create a “virtuous circle” in which a constructive national identity is mobilised which places human rights at the centre of our internal and external affairs.  The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has played precisely this role, placing human rights at the centre of both Canada’s self-perception and external engagement.

Australia has what it takes to be a human rights promoter at home and abroad.  For Australia to realise our potential, however, will require real political leadership and legislative and institutional reform, Most critically, it will require the mobilisation of a national identity that values human rights every bit as highly as beaches, barbecues, boomerangs, the Anzac spirit and the Ashes. That is the opportunity that this Federal Election presents and the responsibility that the next Australian Government confronts.

More Than Luckis a collection of ideas for citizens who want real change edited by Mark Davis and CPD Executive Director Miriam Lyons. A to-do list for politicians looking to base public policies on the kind of future Australians really want, More Than Luck shows what’s needed to share this country’s good luck amongst all Australians – now and in the future. Click here to find out more. Like what you’ve read? Donate to help make good ideas matter.

Blog Comments

Your article Election 2010 Give Policy a Chance is disappointing in that it fails to comment on the reasons for a lack of policy discussion. The answer is the media. They have shaped the election into a pletora of meaningless drivel focussing on Rudd’s dismissal by his party, the leaks in the Labor Party and Julia Gillard’s change in her tactics. As a result there has been little dialogue and debate on more serious issues such as aged care, hospitals, the environment and education e.g. my school program.

Why new election costing another $170 millions people’s burden, politician extra pocketing?

$170 millions will create a national hurray “Health Olympic Australia” project for a truly “Health Revolution” once described Australia health reform by ousted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. A “Health Olympic Australia” project will direct benefits to everyone in Australia within 3 years, for everyone’s health creation, everyone’s wealth creation, and then benefit to everyone globally afterward?

People demands fairer resources supported of lives today, not tomorrow, and not another 3 years on and on?

There are at least five economic productivity outcomes will resulting significant GDP progressing from a “Health Olympic Australia” as follow:

1. Reductions in Australian Health Workforce cost;
2. Reduction in Healthcare cost;
3. Reduction in lost productivity cost;
4. Increase from agriculture outcome;
5. Increase from “Health Olympic Australia” creation in goods/products exportation.

Australia people will fill the miss opportunity to them should it exist today.

Ma kee wai
(Member of Inventor Association Queensland since 1993)

Why Coalition steams ahead in Australia federal election?

Australia now enters a challenging political era for 70 years; voters in crying for a change with anger to share fairer resources supplied lives from the first term of government?

Voters looking for action to have improved resources support lives that suppose lead by government in the following eight commitments:

1. What vision of prosperity voters seen?

2. Why action not enough in the past 3 years?

3. How many election promises has been fulfilling?

4. Where productivity motivation to voters?

5. What materials to speed up election promises processing?

6. Why some election promises powerless process?

7. How far transparency in each department service voters wanted ?

8. Where prioritized direction to empowerment the nation?

A “Health Olympic Australia” project will direct benefits to Australia within 3 years, for everyone’s health creation, and wealth creation regardless of gender, age, and or race, then benefit to everyone globally afterward?

Australia people will fill the miss opportunity to them should it exist today, but yet to discover the value by government.

Ma kee wai
(Member of Inventor Association Queensland since 1993)

What democratic societies should learn lessen from Australia election 2010:
1. What productive action Gillard Labor government 5 billions to UN buys ousted PM Kevin Rudd’s face?
Voter’s pains did not link to high income Politicians and Bureaucracy.
The Australia historical hung parliament demonstrated the big gap of inequality society between the small educated elite groups who get highest pay by talk feast used mouth work controlling live essential resources of the country in every social platforms against the biggest less educated groups who get lowest pay by hands work squeezed by discriminative policies that sucking live blood from individual poor/less wealth off?

Voters’ voices do not hear?
Voters’ pains do not ease?
Voters’ cries do not care?

1. Poverty will not be phase out if no fairer resources to share;
2. Illness will not be reducing if no preventive measurement in real action;
3. Agriculture will not be revitalize if urbanization continuing its path;
4. Housing affordability will not be reach for young generation if government continues cashing from young generation debt by eating out the whole cake of education export revenue without plough back;
5. Manufacture industry will shrink smaller and smaller if no new elements there to power up to survive;
6. Employability will not in the sustainable mode for so long as manufacture and agriculture not going to boost.

Ma kee wai
(Member of Inventor Association Queensland since 1993)

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