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 thoughts on “Will a human rights charter be popular?

  1. 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. “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. 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. 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.


  5. 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.


  6. “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.


  7. 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.


  8. 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.


  9. 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.


  10. 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.)


  11. 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


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