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National Committee on Human Rights Education, Australian National University: speech.

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Robert McClelland MP Federal Member for Barton Shadow Attorney-General and Shadow Minister for Workplace Relations

Speech to the

National Committee on Human Rights Education

Australian National University 23 August 2002

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Despite considerable affluence in the Australian community we are regrettably becoming a society that judges our leaders not so much on who they are for, but rather who they are against. It is a very worrying trend for the future of social relations which are at the heart of an effectively functioning, stable and peaceful democracy. There has never been a more important time to nourish the focus on mutual respect and tolerance. Education is vital to that occurring.

Many Australians are doing pretty well and will continue to do pretty well whichever Government is in power. Why should they be concerned about the human rights of other members of society who perhaps are not travelling so well? Indeed why should we be concerned about human rights in other countries? I mean, if it does not concern our backyard why should we care about, let alone attempt to influence, standards in other countries?

There is a simple answer. Human rights are a cornerstone of a democratic system. All sides of politics accept that an ongoing program of civics education is important to the maintenance of our democratic institutions. Respect for basic and essential human rights must not only become one of those institutions, it must become ingrained in our democratic culture.

Increasingly “human rights” are becoming unpopular words in political debate. For many, human rights only concern minorities. They are portrayed as the province of bleeding hearts, “pinkos” and lawyers who want to jump on a gravy train of defending “fringe groups” in society.

To those people I ask - what importance do you place on living in an effectively functioning democracy?

Yes, democratic governments may be inefficient and of necessity most outcomes are never the best solution because they are based on compromise. People may well question whether the drama and histrionics of modern political debate justify the outcomes achieved.


Despite that, however, I think almost all Australians would say our democratic system is vitally important because the alternatives are so abhorrent.

Indeed, I suspect that the average Australian soldier who has left our shores, if asked why they were going away to risk their lives, would not give you an analysis of political theory but somewhere in their reasoning would have been a broad appreciation of the democratic principles that they were defending.

Education and Democracy

Given that literally thousands of young men and women have died in defence of democratic principles surely we have an obligation not only to maintain our democratic institutions but to develop and enhance them.

It is now universally recognised that education is vital to the development of an effectively functioning democracy.

Indeed those who opposed universal suffrage invoked, as their primary excuse, ignorance of the masses.

According to Edmund Burke, the famous conservative political philosopher,

‘the most poor, illiterate and uninformed creatures upon earth are judges of practical oppression … [they] ought to be totally shut out; because their reason is weak; because when once aroused, their passions are ungoverned; because they want information; because the smallness of the property which they individually possess renders them less attentive to the measures they adopt in affairs of moment.' 1

James McArthur, a founder of the Australian wool industry, argued that the many should be prepared to accept “the benevolent rule of the few”.2

According to conservative thinking in the 19th century untrammelled democracy would only breed corruption and decay. The answer was therefore rule by a class, preferably aristocratic, of enlightened, responsibly-minded property owners.3 It was this elite who had the time and opportunity for education, to read, to reflect, analyse and converse.

Even liberal philosophers like John Stuart Mill argued that only limited franchise should be extended to the masses - “though everyone ought to have a voice, that everyone should have an equal voice is a totally different proposition”.

1 Edmund Burke, The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. I, London: Henry G. Bohn, pp 446-8. 2

John Manning Ward, “The State and the People - Australian Federation and Nation Making 1870-1901”, Federation Press, 2001, p 38. 3

Ibid p44.


Fortunately modern thinking has moved on and it is now a bi-partisan position that civics education is an essential part of our democratic culture. The Government-appointed Civics Expert Group, set up in 1994, succinctly stated the position as follows:

“Our system of Government relies for its efficacy and legitimacy on an informed citizenry: without active, knowledgeable citizens the forms of democratic representation remain empty; without vigilant, informed citizens there is no check on potential tyranny”.4

True democracy must be based upon a respect for the rights of individuals.

As the famous American lawyer Charles Hughes said in his Presidential address to the American Bar Association on 2 September 1925:5

“Democracy has its own capacity for tyranny. Some of the most menacing encroachments upon liberty invoke the democratic principle and assert the right of the majority to rule. Shall not the people - that is, the majority - have their hearts desire? … Our only real protection is that it would be not be their hearts’ desire to sweep away our cherished traditions of personal liberty. The interests of liberty are peculiarly those of individuals, and hence of minorities, and freedom is in danger of being slain at her own altar if the passion for uniformity and control of opinion gathers head”.

Hughes was right. Using language of the 1920’s his reference to the concept of liberty was clearly synonymous with the existence of fundamental rights.

Hughes continued:

“It is important to remember, as has well been said, that the essential characteristic of true liberty is, that under its shelter many different types of life and character and opinion and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed”.

In substance Hughes said that if we want an effective democracy it must be based on a respect for fundamental human rights. Without that we have a democracy which is simply the will of the majority.

In his famous Essay On Liberty John Stuart Mill correctly observed that ‘the tyranny of the majority’ is generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard”.

4 Civics Expert Group, “Whereas the people … Civics and Citizenship Education”, 1994, pp 15-16. 5

Published in “The Lawyer’s Treasury”, Eugene Gerhart ed., Charter Books, 1956.


That is where education on human rights is so vitally important. As Professor Alice Tay said, earlier this year, education is vitally important to ensure that our young citizens “understand the complexity and difference in social relations, and the value of human rights in providing solutions”.6

The Recent Development of Civics Education

It is the policy of all major political parties in Australia to promote civics education. There has been considerable advance since the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training produced its 1989 report “Education for Active Citizenship”. That report highlighted an alarming ignorance of our political system among young Australians and emphasised an urgent need to counter the “ignorance, apathy and powerlessness” felt by many young people.

Wisely the report emphasised that “education for active citizenship is not equivalent to force feeding students with facts about the political system”7

The Senate Committee built on its original work in 1991. Its follow up report entitled Active Citizenship Revisited acknowledged criticism that its first report was essentially confined to the involvement of the public in institutions of government rather than in respect to how citizens become involved in broader public issues and movements.

Building further on the Committee’s work, in 1994 the Keating Government formed the Civics Expert Group which had an express goal “to ensure that Australians can participate fully in civic decision-making processes”.8

Subsequently in May 1997 the Minister for Schools, David Kemp launched Discovering Democracy and more recently on 5 March 2002 Brendan Nelson, the Minister for Education, Science and Training released a survey titled “Citizenship and Democracy: Students knowledge and belief - Australian 14 year olds and the IEA Civic Education Study”9.

This most recent study is interesting in that it confirms that young people while being cynical of political processes do have a fundamental respect for human rights.

As the Minister’s statement noted:

6 The Age 29 May 2002. 7 Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, Education for Active Citizenship, 1989, p 9. 8

Civics Expert Group, “Whereas the people … Civics and Citizenship Education” 1994 p 5. 9 Citizenship and Democracy - Students’ Knowledge and Beliefs: Australian 14 year olds and the IEA Civic Education Study, Susan Mellor, Kerry Kennedy and Lisa Greenwood, Commonwealth of Australia, 2001.


“The study shows that Australian students believe it important to vote and participate in community activities such as promoting the environment and promoting human rights.”10

Indeed the Citizenship and Democracy report is consistent with earlier studies which show that young people are interested in a range of human rights issues.

For instance, a 1997 study by Beresford and Phillips found that while 72% of 18-24 year olds do not have an allegiance to the principles of any political party they do feel strongly about human rights-related issues. The figures indicate:

• 83% supported a racially non discriminatory immigration policy; • 79% supported reconciliation with aborigines; • 66% supported an egalitarian society.11

An excellent summary of recent endeavours to promote civics education is contained in a research paper prepared by Kate Krinks of the Politics and Public Administration group of the Federal Parliamentary Library entitled “Creating the Active Citizen? Recent developments in Civic Education”.12

Ms Krinks refers to a 1998 survey conducted by the Australian Democrats which shows a similar interest among young people including:

• 65% believe Australia is a racist country and 54% want the Government to apologise to the “stolen generation”; • 63% of young people believe it should be illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual preference; • 85% believe that education should be publicly funded.

Again the survey indicates that while many young people are not interested in and probably regard the political process with some disdain they are interested in broader political issues.

Indeed for many young people knowledge of the political process is not a necessary ingredient in their perception of the characteristics of a good citizen.

Research by Phillips and Beresford in 1994 of the attitudes of 11-12 year olds and 15-16 year olds identified the first three characteristics as -

1. Respects the rights of others; 2. Respects the property of others; 3. Treats people equally regardless of their gender, race, age or disability.

10 Press release, the Hon. Brendan Nelson, Minister for Education, Science and Training, 5 March 2002. 11

Quinton Beresford and Harry Phillips “Spectators in Australian Politics: Young voters Interests in Political and Political Issues” Youth Suicide Australia Volume 16 No. 4, 1997, p 16. 12

Australian Parliamentary Library research paper, No. 15, 1998-1999.


In short, I believe that that the ground is fertile for broader civics rights education. Such education itself involves empowerment of individuals to participate in broader political debate.

Methods of Education

As I am not an educator I am not in a position to preach to those with expertise in the area as to how human rights education programs should be structured. Professor Alice Tay however, has persuasively argued that any such education program must involve the development of critical media literacy skills.

My political experience but more significantly my previous legal experience when I acted for a major rugby league club in the Super League wars made me acutely aware of the media’s capacity to manage the presentation of issues. I acknowledge the truth of Professor Tay’s statement that:

“While the role of our mass media is vital, the industry is driven by a set of conflicting interests and intentions, sometimes producing distortions in the way issues are presented.”

In short if we are to develop an appropriate civics culture based on a fundamental respect of the rights of others rather than one which simply conforms with the cultural and philosophical positions of the major media proprietors then media literacy skills are essential.

Another criticism of existing civics education programs is that they can be limited to an institutional focus which is often boring, complicated and irrelevant to the issues that interest young people. Introducing a human rights component in a thoughtful and interesting way will clearly, I believe, enhance the quality of overall civics education.

In many ways it is probably dangerous for the Government or a representative of any political party to suggest an agenda that should be included as part of an education program. For that reason I am attracted to a “light touch approach” which has been developed in Great Britain. That program includes a program designed to empower students to achieve greater understanding and communication in respect to political matters. The curriculum includes under the heading “Developing Skills of Inquiry and Communication” the following:

“Pupils should be taught to: (a) think about topical political, spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues, problems and events by analysing information and its sources; (b) justify orally and in writing a personal opinion about such issues, problems or events;


(c) contribute to group and exploratory class discussions, and take part in debates.”13

Under the heading developing skills of participation and responsible action the curriculum sets out that pupils should be taught to:

“(a) Use their imagination to consider other peoples experiences and be able to think about, express and explain views that are not their own; (b) Negotiate, decide and take part responsibly in both school and community based activities; (c) Reflect on the process of participating.”

The curriculum is particularly appealing in that it asks students to stand in the shoes of others in attempting to analyse their approach to important issues which clearly, include those relating to human rights. Not only that, the approach requires students to articulate and explain those views from the point of view of the experience of others.

It has been said that it is all too easy to be tolerant of the things we like and understand but real tolerance applies to those modes of living, beliefs and cultures that we do not understand. Clearly the process which has been adopted in the British curriculum is a step along the way to achieving that broader understanding.

Australia fortunately still remains a strong example of cooperative living. While we may not always agree with each other on all issues we must be willing to accept differences with good will. Human rights education I believe is fundamental for that process.

If minds can be opened to the views of others then seeds may be planted and fertilised and anything might grow, perhaps even tolerance.

13 Citizenship: The National Curriculum for England, DEE7 QCA, 1999, referred to “Education for Citizenship: The Citizenship Order” Bernard Cricks Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government for 2002, Parliamentary Affairs (2002), 55, 488-504 at 499.