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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Human Rights Conference program - what are the implications?

Here is the program for next week's conference on human rights convened by the National Human Rights Consultation Committee.

I must say that the list of topics and speakers sends alarm bells ringing for me, not so much for any sins of commission as for those of omission. I am disappointed that - in this year when we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty - there is no topic that relates directly to individual liberty or freedom of speech. An item celebrating Mill's monumental achievement, something that has been enormously valuable for our civilization, would have been an appropriate gesture, but no such gesture has been made.

Again, the only item relating to freedom of religion is about freedom of religion in employment - and the speaker is an Anglican bishop from the notoriously conservative Diocese of Sydney! Where is a balancing view from someone who objects to the claims of the churches for special privileges in employment, such as exemptions from anti-discrimination law? More generally, where are any of the countless Australians who have concerns about the undue influence of religion on social policy?

To be fair, I suppose it's possible that some of the speakers on gay rights, euthanasia, and abortion fit into that mould. Most of their names are not known to me, but I do congratulate the committee for at least including those topics.

It's still early days, I suppose, and it will be a couple of months before we see the committee's report (due by the end of August). However, this conference program is the best indication that we have so far as to what the committee considers to be its priorities. Some of those priorities are worthy in themselves, no doubt, and some of them even reflect some of the less distinctive themes running through my own submission, for I, too, expressed concern about social inclusion and the vulnerability of individuals who fall outside of the Australian mainstream:

Elsewhere in the policy landscape, many mainstream Australians can be insensitive or unimaginative when considering the interests of people who are outside the mainstream. Cases involving such groups as asylum seekers or disaffected Aboriginal youth underline how tempting it is for populist governments to apply harsh treatment to people who lack mainstream support and attract mainstream suspicion. Even relatively privileged individuals, such as the photographer Bill Henson, can be isolated by the mainstream public and demonised by populist politicians.

But at a time when free speech is under attack from all sides, I'd have liked some reassurance that it is being taken seriously by the consultation committee. Much more must be done in Australia to protect free speech from religious vilification laws and the like. Why wasn't this made a topic for the conference when there is so much community disquiet about the issue? Many people, including newspaper editorialists, have expressed a concern that the outcome of the consultation will be new restrictions on freedom of speech, so why not open that up for specific debate?

The program's heavy emphasis on social inclusion suggests that the freedom to criticise the ideas of others may receive short shrift. Well, that may be overreading. But in any event, no one on the program appears to be a free speech advocate - for example, there is no speaker from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or from any of the organisations in this country that highly value freedom of speech and are fighting against its erosion. There is no one who was vocal in defence of artistic freedom during the Henson affair. I'd have liked to have seen David Marr or Alison Croggon on the program, but where are they? Or why not Bill Henson himself? He'd have been an obvious person to invite.

Again, there is no one who is known for criticising the ongoing criminalisation of marijuana use. No one on the program represents anything like a libertarian or Millian position. Why not invite at least one person, such as Anna Blainey, who takes a strong libertarian line on matters of social policy? Anna's own profile may not yet be high enough, but there must be speakers who could be found to deal, from a similar viewpoint, with the proper limits of government power.

A lot of what's actually there on the program is solid, of course, and the individual speakers are generally difficult to criticise (though a few seem rather lightweight). But the overall program lacks imagination and philosophical perspective.

There's nothing more that I can do to take part in the process. I thought of registering to attend the conference, but I would be just one member of the public among many, and my voice would have little (more likely, no) impact. It would, of course, have been nice to have been invited to speak, since I wrote one of the most detailed and academically rigorous submissions that the committee received. But that was obviously never going to happen when the topics I'd have most wanted to speak on are not covered at all. There is nothing about free speech. There is nothing about the urgent need to hold governments' feet to the fire when (as so often) they do not follow the Millian harm principle. A discussion of the relationship between international human rights law and liberal principles such as those of Mill and Feinberg was a must for this conference - I can think of no more important topic that should have been covered - but it's simply not there in any discernible form. The best I can hope for is that my written submission will carry at least some weight in the collective mind of the committe, but I don't have any high hopes of that, given the priorities that the committee has now signalled.

As touched on above, I am conscious that I may be reading too much into the content of the conference program. Over on the committee's discussion site, I expressed bitter disappointment with the choice of topics and speakers, but that was a first reaction. I've slept on it now. Let's just say that I find the program disappointing (sans adverb), unimaginative, and (perhaps) a little bit ominous. We'll have to wait and see what the committee actually thinks of the issues that I've raised in my submission, and will keep raising on this blog and in any other forum I can find.

Meanwhile, feel free to have your say about all this. I must stress that the positive content of the program doesn't look too bad. It's what's missing that worries me, the very important missing content; it's not so much concerns about specific speakers or items.

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