Alternative Law Journal
Spencer Zifcac; UNSW PRESS, 2003; 96pp, $16.95 softcover.
The book's title is a good one, but could just as easily been Mr Downer spits the dummy or Mr Howard cuts and runs. At the heart of the book is the Australian Government's fit of pique over criticism of the country's human rights record by a UN human rights committee in 2000.
On 21 March 2000, an Australian Government delegation, led by Philip Ruddock, appeared before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to present Australia's report on its compliance with international obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. In response, and after some debate between Ruddock and members of the committee, the committee expressed a number of major concerns about Australia's compliance with its international obligations. It noted that Australia had no entrenched guarantee prohibiting racial discrimination. It expressed grave concerns about the inordinately high rates of Aboriginal incarceration. It noted the racially discriminatory effect of mandatory sentencing. It expressed anxiety at the Aboriginal community's apparent loss of confidence in the process of reconciliation. It regretted that the Australian Government had felt unable to apologise to the members of the stolen generation. It remained concerned about the dramatic Inequality still experienced by large sections of the Indigenous population. And, somewhat outside its terms of reference, it urged the Howard Government to comply with its obligations under the international refugee convention.
Pretty unexceptional stuff really, as all the criticisms were factually spot on, and hardly surprising, as all the issues had been the subject of widespread debate in Australia. Nonetheless, the Government's response was hostile, rejecting the comments as 'an unbalanced and wide ranging attack that intrudes unreasonably into Australia's domestic affairs'. Additionally, said the response, '[i]t is unacceptable that Australia, which is a model member of the UN, is being criticised in this way for its human rights record'. Four days later Alexander Downer announced a comprehensive review of Australia's entire relationship with the UN human rights treaty system. After the review, Cabinet decided that its cooperation with the treaty system would be contingent on reforms consistent with the Government's views.
Zifack examines in some detail the nature and causes of the Australian Government's response. Thankfully, in doing so, he does not mount a defence of the UN committee system (in fact he assesses in some detail the need for reform of the system). Instead he closely analyses the Australian Government's response and points out why it should be of concern to us all.
Zifcak argues that the response advances a form of 'democratic exceptionalism', summarised by a statement by Howard in another context that 'Australia decides what happens in this country through the laws and parliaments in Australia'. So rather than acknowledging and dealing with the problems raised by the committee, the Government rejects the committee as a bunch of outsiders who should leave Australia alone and go deal with all those other really bad undemocratic countries. Zifcak points out that it is somewhat contradictory for the Australian Government to seek to address problems with the UN committee system by effectively moving toward disengagement from it, and also to criticise it as ineffective and at the same time go completely berserk when it dares to do its job. Interestingly, Zifcak examines the underlying causes of the response, positioning it as part of the ongoing destruction of the social democratic agenda from the Australian political landscape by the current government, and other international developments seeking to reduce the role of the United Nations in international affairs.
I enjoyed Mr Ruddock Goes to Geneva greatly, and was impressed at how much territory Zifcak managed to cover in such a short book I must confess, however, that I found it depressing to be reminded of how far our little country has slipped on the human rights ladder in the last decade, and just how pigheaded our current government tends to be about these sorts of things.
I would only argue one point with Zifcak. He raises the 'troublesome conundrum' of why the Government's sustained assault on domestic and international human rights institutions and protections failed to have adverse electoral consequences, and reaches for economic and physical insecurity as an explanation. Hmmm, maybe. I'd venture that three other factors might be more relevant. First, I don't think too many Australians give a toss about the UN committee system and wouldn't have given the committee's report or the Government's response a second thought. Second, the Government's response played to our reptilian brain as much as to our rational one in that it appealed to a very basic bugger off, we're all right jack' attitude. And finally, maybe a lot of Australians are just plain racist. Consider our reaction to Tampa, and the explosion of support for Pauline Hanson. And a letter to the editor I read in a major newspaper recently that decried the worst decision in Australia's political history -no, not the decision to go to war 1n Iraq, but the day we got rid of the White Australia policy.
ANTHONY REILLY is a Queensland lawyer.