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Bush Talks - The Human Rights Traps move into Hanson Territory

By Graham Young - posted Thursday, 15 April 1999


Rural communities in the Anglo Saxon world have been in decline for longer than Australia has been settled. But it was hard to tell this in the hey days of settlement. As rural industries spread, people and capital followed, producing a spending boom of mammoth proportions as towns, roads, railways and dams were built. On top of that Australia was a rural innovator and enjoyed good prices for products, like wool, in which she was a leading supplier.

But any cocky who took advantage of the rural land boom in the 60's to sell up and move to the Gold Coast, probably picked it right. Things have never been the same since. Most of the dams have been built, the railways were in place, the roads only need a little bitumen on the shoulders, and the population, and with it the towns, has been shrinking.

For more than 100 years, the prices of rural commodities have been falling in real dollars. To cope, producers have had to either become more efficient, or find profitable niches, or do both together. Efficiency means doing more with less - less people, and less capital - and that has taken the drivers out of obvious rural prosperity. It has also left many marooned on properties they could not sell for the valuations set against the title deeds sitting in the bank's vault. Yet there is still a prosperity in the bush - fortunes are even now being made - but it is a depopulated and invisible prosperity.

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Into this landscape walked Pauline Hanson. She offered hope to the huddled masses, a vicious hope based on xenophobic blame shifting and snake oil nostrums that would kill, rather than heal, the patient, but hope nevertheless. And people have been buying. Not that they will buy her brand for much longer. Many of the ointments have become so rancid that even the flies won’t blow on them, but she has her imitators, and some of these have a better grasp on their craft than she.

So it is no wonder that the Human Rights Traps have decided that it is time to slip into Hanson Territory.

Bush Talks is an admirable document to just short of its action plans. It is a peripatetic waltz through rural and regional Australia featuring a smorgasbord of complaints - not statistically rigorous, but creating empathy with the patient. As one of the elites that Hanson rails against, it does the Commission no harm to empathize.

But this research has its limits. Patients can be wrong about pain. It can be referred from some other part of the body. They can exaggerate just how bad it is. Their complaint has to be followed up by diagnosis, and diagnosis has to be based on rigorous analysis. Otherwise, the physician is no better than the snake oil salesman.

The problem with the Bush Talks approach is that it fails to take that analytical step. And it fails to take the step for institutional reasons which have nothing to do with the decency and integrity of its staff, and everything to do with the inappropriateness of part of the United Nations model for human rights, of which, in a sense, the Commission is the local administrator.

The report is strongest in the projects that it undertakes dealing with civil and political rights - Juvenile Justice, Discrimination against Minority Groups - and weakest where it exercises a broader ranging mandate - Education, Health, Services. Yet every section is prefaced by an extract from some convention or other to which Australia is a party to prove that we have an overriding responsibility in these areas, apparently irrespective of cost. Indeed the mandates appear to be so wide that the commission ends up double-guessing government policy in just about every area. For an organization with limited resources, this has to be untenable, as well as causing it to stray from rights into politics.

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The United Nations Universal Declaration on the Rights of the Human Being, combines the traditional civil and political rights with what it terms economic and social rights. Yet the latter are often no more than wants, needs or desires. While jobs, education, food and shelter are basic needs, they are not so basic that an individual can demand that the state supply them, unlike the rights to freedom of thought, expression and association. A good test of this is that many of us are glad to see Augusto Pinochet extradited for his breaches of civil and political rights, but who would suggest that a Head of Government ought to be tried for failing to provide a social security system?

One of the rights the Commission talks about is access to water, by which they seem to mean reticulated water. I recently visited friends, a retired Anglican clergyman and his wife. They live 45 minutes from Brisbane, have sea views and only a couple of blocks to walk to the local, modern shopping centre. According to the report they are two of "154,000 Australians ... without a reticulated water supply." The implication is that they lack a fundamental human right. But how so? They have water. They just have to collect it themselves when it falls on their roof, and when their collection process is inadequate because of drought, they truck it in from someone with a dam. Sure there is a cost, but so is there a cost to reticulated water. Those of us who have it pay for it. We are just a little less involved in its collection.

The report quotes complaints that water in rural Australia is too expensive. Water is a commodity, just like fruit and vegetables and fuels. It is more expensive in some areas than others, and just as well. This sends a message that there is a cost to collect and store it which discourages overuse. It is a scandal that for years governments have subsidized the price of water in the bush, particularly in irrigation. The result of this has been overuse resulting in destruction of waterways and natural habitat, and salination of good cropping land.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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