Will a human rights charter be popular?

The public opinion research accompanying the report of the National Human Rights Consultation suggests that those proposing a charter of rights have a tough task ahead.

These days, only bastards and people who know a little political philosophy are likely to question the whole idea of ‘human rights’ (‘nonsense upon stilts’, as the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham memorably called them). So on questions about parliament paying attention to human rights or increased education on human rights only one or two percent of respondents express opposition.

But only 7% of respondents disagreed with the proposition that human rights are adequately protected (with a large 29% not expressing a view).

Worse for the main advocates of putting general human rights into legislation or the Constitution, the public isn’t in general very sympathetic on some of the issues that are driving the human rights push in the first place.

Only 28% think that the human rights of asylum seekers need more protection, and 30% think that asylum seekers need less protection. Only 32% think gays and lesbians need more protection (18% less).

While 57% think that Indigenous people in remote areas need their rights better protected, other polling shows overwhelming support for the NT intervention human rights advocates opposed. An ACNielsen poll in 2006 found only 29% of respondents believing that the federal government had shown ‘not enough respect for civil liberties’ in dealing with the terrorist threat, another issue where human rights advocates have been active.

So while when the issue of human rights is phrased at a very high level of abstraction most people will say that they are a good thing, when they understand what human rights laws are likely to mean in practice opinion is likely to turn negative.

13 Responses to “Will a human rights charter be popular?

  • 1
    October 11th, 2009 20:27

    Andrew – I wasn’t in Australia for most of the 80s and can’t remember what public opinion was re setting up HREOC. Can you remember?

  • 2
    October 11th, 2009 22:10

    “But only 7% of respondents disagreed with the proposition that human rights are not adequately protected (with a large 29% not expressing a view).”

    Is there an extra not in there?

  • 3
    Joe Lane
    October 11th, 2009 23:20

    Perhaps this argument for and against a human rights charter will turn out to be a re-run of Berlin’s positive versus negative liberty: do we have a set of rights which define what can be done (and all else is prohibited), or do we have a moveable body of law prohibiting certain acts and behaviours (and all else is permitted) ? In other words, the ‘certainty’ of utopia, or the uncertainty and chaos of living, breathing democracy ?

  • 4
    October 12th, 2009 02:01

    […] Andrew Norton, buttressed by measured public opinion, suggests that human rights is a good thing provided we have got ours, but in the process failing to understand the quality of social engagement that democracy demands or that justice as a social good must be argued, advocated and witnessed?. […]

  • 5
    Andrew Norton
    October 12th, 2009 05:43

    Rob – Thanks for the proofreading help. That and another error corrected.

    Russell – I can’t find any reference to HREOC in the social science data archive. It doesn’t have all the polls published in newspapers, so there may be something but I don’t remember it.

  • 6
    Michael "Lorenzo" Warby
    October 12th, 2009 06:39

    Given how very badly the Hawke Government’s referendum attempt went, these results are not so surprising. Add in the “do you want Parliaments to have less power and judges more?” question that immediately arises if one attempts to go down this path, and it gets even harder for the “our rights need more litigation possibilities” advocates.

    Human rights derive from medieval and post-medieval concepts of natural rights in natural law thinking. Pope Paul III 1537 Bull Sublimus Dei is a nice example of the intellectual lineage. A useful survey article is here.

  • 7
    October 12th, 2009 06:43

    “rights laws are likely to mean in practice opinion is likely to turn negative”

    What they mean by your definition? What they mean in you opinion? or what they mean according to the first book of danuals? Who is the arbiter.

  • 8
    Andrew Norton
    October 12th, 2009 06:57

    Charles – Indeed, who is the arbiter is the question. There are many human interests (using that term broadly, not just financial interests) that are arguably deserving of legal protection. Parliaments will generally reason up from specific circumstances in deciding how to protect those interests, while charter/bill of rights courts will reason down from high-level general ideas to the specific circumstances before them. I think the punters are likely to disagree with many of the conclusions courts will reach.

  • 9
    Tysen Woodlock
    October 12th, 2009 15:59

    I don’t really know what to think. It is made more difficult by the fact that I am suspicious of most of the individuals that are advocating for these changes.

  • 10
    October 12th, 2009 22:27

    Tysen – it would be interesting / relevant to know what people who have such a charter think. I believe Canadians are overwhelmingly in favor of theirs. How about our cousins in the A.C.T. – are they happy with theirs?
    We know something of the opinion in Carlton.

  • 11
    Andrew Norton
    October 13th, 2009 07:48

    Russell – The Wikipedia entry on the Canadian charter says public opinion is in favour of it, though acknowledging that most people don’t know what is in it. My hypothesis is that once these documents are entrenched in the political system there is little point arguing for repeal, and societies wear the costs through politicisation of the judiciary and issues that are settled in sub-optimal ways. (I should stress that I think some decisions from bill of rights cases provide good outcomes in a policy sense, and that if we have one I would certainly consider taking legal action myself, but that overall I think the political system would be better off without one.)

  • 12
    Bob Champion
    October 13th, 2009 15:56

    It may be popular, although I dare say the moment it interferes with a member of the public conducting themselves in a manner they would have done so before the charter was introduced, it will become unpopular. If the charter has no impact upon the way individuals conduct themselves, then remind me again why we need one?! Thought provoking article Andrew

  • 13
    Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » Should there be a charter of rights referendum?
    October 21st, 2009 19:05

    […] In this broader sense of a constitutional system, a charter of rights is an important change in the relationship between the executive and the judiciary, and represents a major shift in how the rest of us consider issues covered by the charter. The substantive rights and wrongs of various issues will become secondary to the legal arguments for and against, which are often much harder for ordinary citizens to understand. The judicial decisions made are likely to lead to conclusions which majorities do not support. […]