During this year’s federal election campaign, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a piece by academic lawyer Ben Saul entitled ‘Human rights failures say a lot about our government.’
A more honest headline would have been ‘Human rights lawyer shows how decent and enlightened he is and what moral pygmies most Australians are.’
‘Elections are fought and won in middle Australia’, Saul’s piece begins. Not a good thing in Saul’s view it seems – his second sentence starts with the word ‘Sadly’. After begrudgingly mentioning a couple of Coalition government achievements, Saul moves quickly to affirm the higher moral plane on which he operates: ‘But the government can sing its own praises. I will sing its failures.’
Saul’s article is remarkable for several reasons. There is his curious view that human rights law is what delivers prosperity, security, health and other good things. According to Saul ‘economic, social and cultural rights… .ensure human survival, dignity and life opportunity’.
He seems to think that the moment all the human rights lawyers get together and draft a statement calling for ‘opportunities to work’ and ‘social security to maintain a decent standard of living’ – to take two he mentions – then these outcomes are somehow ensured.
To be clear, of course these are good things. But how is the actual delivery of them advanced in any practical way by Ben Saul and his fellow human rights lawyers writing them down on a page?
Opportunities to work are delivered by a growing economy. Social security is made possible by taxes collected from the majority of Australians who work and do business – paying for those who are not able to do so.
Australia’s social security system this year will cost nearly $160 billion – a fact not mentioned by Saul. Indeed there is a distinct lack of data or evidence in Saul’s article.
He does not mention that Australia ranks second in the world on the United Nations human development index. Nor that our health system produces some of the best results in the world: we rank fourth in the world on life expectancy for example according to the World Health Organisation and yet at about 10 per cent of GDP our health system is more cost effective than countries like the US, Canada and many European nations.
Saul says nothing about the extensive resources we dedicate as a nation to delivering ‘affordable and accessible healthcare, education, housing and food’. He describes these matters as human rights – but it is not that description which delivers outcomes in these areas, it is the practical application of financial and other resources. In 2016-17 the federal government will spend $158.6 billion on social services (such as the age pension, the Newstart unemployment benefit and the disability support pension); $71.4 billion on health and $33.7 billion on education. It will also provide $61.3 billion to state governments, much of which in turn they will spend on health and education. Combined, this is nearly 80 per cent of the total revenues of the Commonwealth Government – but of course we cannot expect a human rights lawyer to concern himself with the fact that there is a finite amount of money to spend.
Saul’s article fails to discuss any specific policy methods by which the rights he identifies are to be delivered.
Coalition governments focus on delivery. Labor governments – and their progressive political supporters – see announcing the grand goal as what matters. For example, Saul refers to ‘Labor’s National Disability Insurance Scheme.’
Well Labor announced it – but it is the Coalition doing the hard work of delivery. Designing the scheme, implementing it, and funding it is enormously challenging. As the 2016-17 budget papers explain, the NDIS will cost around $21 billion a year. Labor did not worry much about those tedious mechanics when they announced it – and we certainly can’t expect this to trouble a human rights lawyer.
It’s not a bad gig, actually, being a human rights lawyer. You write out some aspirations, have them adopted by some worthy body, then with a self-satisfied sigh you can put down your pen. Your work is done – apart from occasionally popping up to express your disgust that the pygmies and cretins who claim to be governing have done such a hopeless job, ideally leavening your remarks liberally with phrases such as ‘lost their moral compass’ and ‘I feel ashamed to be Australian.’
Saul’s article finishes with the claim that ‘many voters… understand that the protection of human rights is a basic test of a government’s decency’.
Many voters also understand that stating goals is not the hard part of governing; the hard part is the detailed work of designing and implementing effective policies to give effect to the goals – while making the inevitable trade-offs amongst the never ending list of suggestions about how government should spend taxpayers’ money.
Saul has plenty to say about the easy bits; what a pity he has no useful advice to offer on the hard bits.
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