Protecting rights requires confronting privilege

Sydney protest against the AFP raids and for whistleblower protections. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

No sooner had the government won re-election its own actions once again showed politics is, after all, fundamental to how you live.

Shortly after home affairs minister Peter Dutton was re-elected, the Australian Federal Police (AFP), which falls within his ministry, executed search warrants against journalists who have investigated allegations of soldiers unlawfully killing Afghan civilians and government plans to spy on us.

The police claimed their target was the journalist’s sources. But the raids were also a public show of force against whistleblowers in general, much like the prosecution of Witness K and lawyer Bernard Collaery, who exposed government spying on Timor-Leste during oil and gas deal negotiations.

They were an attack on the right to expose the government’s abuse of power.

Rights matter because we are human beings who can beneficially participate in communities and not just consumers who might “like fries with that” or robotic workers.

Discussion about rights has traditionally been about what rights people should have to oppose the actions of government officials, the military, the police and the like without facing the force those institutions can use.

These rights are often expressed in legal documents, such as the United States Bill of Rights.

Employers have also often sought to control what employees say and do, including outside the workplace. In recent decades, there has been a rising trend in Australia of employer control being imposed through codes of conduct and contractual obligations.

In certain cases, a view that a worker publicises might show there is some work they can’t do, such as advocacy for a contrary view. Employers also have the right to sack a worker if they harass or vilify workmates.

But is it reasonable for employers to impose further restrictions on a worker’s right to be, do or say something?

Rather than discuss this, the government wants to focus on the right to “religious freedom”.

State repression and social vilification of religious and anti-religious belief has been — and often remains — a very real problem that socialists have campaigned against.

But the contemporary advocates of “religious freedom” in the churches, media and political class seem more concerned about religious institutions being able to reject people who are gay, lesbian or transgender, or protecting bigoted remarks by believers.

In the end, rights are about power — specifically, which institutions and individuals have the power to do what.

When Australia’s media barons gathered at the National Press Club after the AFP raids to call for laws protecting investigative journalism, their concern was principally their privilege to sell us that news for their corporate purposes.

Of course, we should support this, because it also gives us some right to know the real stories. But currently that only happens when the establishment media chooses to tell them.

What capacity, then, do people have to effectively exercise human rights?

A “conversation” being run by the Australian Human Rights Commission about the effective protection of human rights could allow for some discussion on this issue.

However, when commission president Rosalind Croucher argues that “a commitment to human rights for everyone … enables us to confirm the common values and bonds we possess across our society”, she ignores the divisions of power and privilege that such a commitment must confront.

Ultimately, before worrying too much about the best form for legally expressing our rights — constitutional provisions, a Bill of Rights or various separate laws — we should recognise that we will not get the rights we want without fighting to win and keep them.

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