I am a Christian and like many other Christians I support the development of federal human rights legislation.
I sincerely hope that the National Human Rights Consultation Committee makes such a recommendation to the Federal Government. When the Committee finally delivers its report, I may or may not agree with the conclusions it reaches. It may disappoint me, but I will trust it. I have the utmost respect for the integrity of Father Frank Brennan and the other members of the National Human Rights Consultation Committee.
Frank Brennan and I disagree about some issues and share similar opinions on many others. Disagreement does not mistrust make.
The Uniting Church in Australia is the only Australian church to officially support the development of federal human rights legislation. I am proud of this. I believe that this is a significant example of a church putting others before itself. Some in the Uniting Church may wish to draw different conclusions (we are a very broad church) but I believe that this position demonstrates some important things about how the Uniting Church sees itself in our society.
The Uniting Church believes that it is privileged enough to be able to negotiate for itself what matters to it and its future wellbeing. The Church’s concerns in matters of human rights are squarely with those who are not so privileged—those whose rights are most often trampled by public policy that does not heed their needs and which is too often implemented by bureaucracies that do not understand their circumstances— Indigenous Australians, those who live in poverty, people with physical disabilities and mental illness, carers struggling to provide for their families as they maintain their own health, the long-term unemployed, the elderly and frail, and people who live in society’s institutions.
Support for a Human Rights Act demonstrates that the Uniting Church recognises that it lives in a secular democratic state within a diverse multi-faith society to which it is prepared to make itself accountable.
While it remains immovably committed to the Christian faith and the message and mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Uniting Church does not presume to be a moral arbiter of society, nor does it believe it always gets it right. The Uniting Church understands that it must make a case for its values and principles, just as other groups and institutions have to, for this is what it means to live in a country with a healthy civil society.
I believe that the Uniting Church is demonstrating that it values open, respectful, informed dialogue and debate so that we may together decide how to express such universal values as compassion, respect, justice and equity in law and public policy (values upheld in the long tradition of Christian advocacy for social justice). Such debate is not served by governments rushing through legislation without time for serious public and parliamentary scrutiny. A federal Human Rights Act would provide a useful check on the power of the executive and slow the processes down. Governments will not be forced by judges to change public policy but they will be forced to explain themselves and make a case for any policy which seeks to
over-ride the human rights of any group of people.
There is no doubt that most of us can say that Australia has done well in protecting and upholding human rights but it is entirely reasonable to be committed to doing better. There are numerous examples in our history that demonstrate the sometimes less than stellar values we exhibit as a society and the inadequacies of our laws. We are still, for example, recovering from the White Australia Policy.
The Uniting Church has often drawn the attention of church members, the public and politicians to policies that have had a discriminatory and detrimental effect on distinct segments of the population, for example, people who are homeless, low-income workers and refugees, and to other policies which have been implemented without adequate attention paid to civil and political rights, including policies that have impaired the right to a fair trial and to freedom of speech and association.
We need to do everything we can to help ourselves. We need systems and structures and language that support the growth of communities which are vibrant, inclusive and safe places, places where people experience dignity and respect and are enabled to flourish as individuals. There are too many places in Australia that are not safe and too many people who have had their dignity denied.
A Human Rights Act will not fix all the problems but it is a necessary tool. It will help us to uphold people’s dignity and it will help us identify when public policy is dividing us, as it sometimes does, into those who are worthy and those who are less than worthy.
I am proud of the Uniting Church’s support for such legislation because its support is firmly grounded in notions of the common good and the inherent dignity of every person, especially those who are least in our society. Christians around the country who help to care for and serve the needs of those who the rest of society forgets are well placed to support such important legislation.
Rev. Elenie Poulos is the National Director of UnitingJustice Australia, the policy and advocacy unit of the National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia. This is a personal reflection on the official position of the Uniting Church in Australia.