Annual Lecture of the Australian Institute of International Affairs - Tasmania Branch – Human Rights in Australia’s Foreign Policy Future – Hobart – 19/04/2021

19 April 2021


I would like to pay respect to the traditional and original owners of this land the muwinina people.

I pay respect to those that have passed before us and to acknowledge today’s Tasmanian Aboriginal community who are the custodians of this land.

Thank you all for coming this evening.

I want especially to thank the Tasmanian Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs for their patience and adaptability.

This is of course known as the annual Government House lecture, and as you can see, this is not Government House.

Unfortunately that wouldn’t have been appropriate since the State Election was called after all these arrangements were confirmed – at last, after so many attempts through the pandemic.

Thank you for being able to make this new venue work and I hope next year you are back to your normal arrangements.

We are more than 70 years from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As Eleanor Roosevelt described it, the international Magna Carta for all mankind.

With its foundations in the Four Freedoms espoused by her husband: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear.

And its deeper roots in the French Revolutionary Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen); the American Declaration of Independence some twenty years before that; and the Magna Carta itself more than 800 years ago.

With its recognition that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights –

And its implication that to be sincere, it must encompass civil and socio-economic rights –

It remains as profound as ever.

And perhaps it remains as aspirational as ever.

Because while we have seen so many advances in human rights, we have also seen stagnation and deterioration.

The pandemic has highlighted how far we are from universality in healthcare, living standards and economic protections – both within nations, and between developed and developing countries.

It is true that we have all been in this pandemic together – we are all responsible for doing our part to stop the spread – but we are not all experiencing this pandemic in the same way.

It’s hard to think of a moment in our lifetime when the impact of inequality has been more brutal – more deadly – than through this pandemic.

And while the pandemic has fostered greater awareness and debate in some societies about the devastations of poverty and inequality, in other places political leaders have sought to manipulate the circumstances of the pandemic to further weaken human rights.

In Hungary, for instance, Viktor Orban gained “emergency” powers enabling him to ignore any laws and suspend elections for an indefinite period of time. The spread of information that causes “disturbance” will be a crime punishable by prison.

With populations often riven with fear and overwhelmed in managing their immediate problems, the pandemic has accelerated the already years-long march of authoritarianism.

Corruption and disinformation abound. According to the metric used by Reporters Without Borders, global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 per cent since 2013.

In many parts of the world, from Europe to Asia to Latin America, populist, authoritarian leaders have been undermining the rule of law.

Even our principal ally had a close call in the past year, with the then incumbent president refusing to accept a democratic election and inciting a deadly insurrection.

Closer to home, the February military coup in Myanmar was a direct attack on the country’s ongoing democratic transition.

In Hong Kong, the rug has been pulled from underneath the city’s democratic system with the imposition of the National Security Law and amendments to the Electoral Law.

The One Country, Two Systems arrangement – a commitment China made in front of the whole world - has been eroded beyond recognition.

The people of Myanmar and Hong Kong have made their voices heard - often through the only viable option of taking to the streets - in the face of direct attacks on their rights and, indeed, their lives.

While there are no easy answers or quick fixes to these harrowing developments, it is incumbent upon Australia to prosecute our interests, including support for democratic freedoms.

This is because – in Labor’s view – Australia should deal with the world as it is, but seek to change it for the better.

We face a riskier, more dangerous world.

And while we won’t always have the weight of the major powers, Australia is a substantial power; what we say and what we do matters.

We should speak out clearly and consistently in support of human rights.

And where we can, we should act.

There are things we can do to support the people of Hong Kong, Myanmar and elsewhere, and hold governments to account for the commitments they have made to their citizens and to the international community.

Last year we called on the Morrison Government to provide pathways for Hong Kongers on temporary visas in Australia to extend their stay, and to their credit they did.

We have now called on the Morrison Government to do the same for Myanmar nationals in Australia, given the ongoing violence.

But there is so much more that Australia can do.

The assault on human rights goes well beyond these localised situations.

In 2017, an estimated 40.3 million people around the world were living in conditions of modern slavery.

24.9 million of these people were in forced labour situations.

Nearly two thirds of the people living in conditions of modern slavery are in our region (Asia Pacific).

The result is the supply chains of the goods we consume are festered with criminal exploitation.

And the pandemic has worsened the structural inequalities that drive modern slavery.

In 2018, Walk Free’s Global Slavery Index reported that Australia imported at least USD12 billion worth of goods at-risk of forced labour.

Of this value, USD10 billion was from imports of electronics, garments and seafood from China.

Lately, we have seen a series of credible and distressing reports of forced labour in China, particularly in Xinjiang.

This is in addition to reports of mass detentions and other human rights violations of Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang and across China.

All Australians would condemn these reported actions.

These are not the actions of a responsible global power and we urge the Chinese government to uphold its international human rights obligations and allow unfettered access to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It appears there are clear violations of international law in Xinjiang and other countries have described this as genocide.

We call on the Morrison Government to provide its assessment of what is happening in Xinjiang – based on all the information available to its agencies – and what it is doing to address the situation.

Uyghur communities in Australia are also frustrated and understandably worried about loved ones in China - and they really do need more support from the Morrison Government.

And there is much more that we as a country can and should be doing to address modern slavery and forced labour, and other human rights violations.

It is a global problem that requires leadership to help eliminate.

In government, Labor will introduce Magnitsky sanctions legislation at home to augment our existing sanctions regime.

This will not only put Australia on the same page as our key allies, but send a strong signal to perpetrators of abuses around the world.

The Morrison Government’s slowness to act on this sends a regrettable message.

That we are not committed. That we don’t take it seriously.

Having a more comprehensive sanctions regime requires a more mature and consistent dialogue with key stakeholders in Australia and abroad.

But too often the insights available to government from diaspora communities and human rights groups with deep connections into other countries are ignored.

Labor will correct this - we will listen to and engage with communities and NGOs that have a strong stake in and unique perspectives on human rights issues abroad.

And we will work with likeminded partners to collaborate and get the most out of our collective responses to human rights abuses.

Labor will put ending modern slavery at the heart of this work.

Companies should not be profiting from modern slavery, including forced labour.

We have a Modern Slavery Act, which Labor attempted to strengthen in 2018 - including through tougher enforcement mechanisms and the establishment of an Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

These amendments were not supported by this Government, and in the intervening period the world has witnessed a growing number of horrifying reports of forced labour and human rights violations in China and in many other countries.

When it comes to criticising these violations, Australia cannot bring the moral credibility we need to the table unless we strengthen our own Modern Slavery Act.

Tonight, I reissue my call on the Morrison Government to work with Labor and the crossbench to improve the Modern Slavery Act by introducing tough penalties for non-compliance, and by strengthening the mandatory reporting requirements on possible exposures to abuses.

This should include reports of forced labour in Xinjiang, and elsewhere in the world.

The Morrison Government has left Australia far behind many of our like-minded partners in addressing forced labour and modern slavery.

We must pursue an effective, comprehensive, country-agnostic approach to address these global problems.

Yet to effectively address modern slavery, the Morrison Government needs to do more than amend laws.

It needs to work with consumers and producers to boost the transparency of global supply chains and make clear those industries and countries with a high risk of modern slavery.

It needs to engage in regular dialogues with unions, industry groups and human rights organisations, and properly fund research into forced labour issues.

The Morrison Government should also consider targeted sanctions on foreign companies, officials and other entities known to be directly profiting from Uyghur forced labour and other human rights abuses.

And it is well past time for the Morrison Government to ratify the International Labour Organization’s 2014 Forced Labour Protocol.

If Australia wants to be taken seriously on ending forced labour, it must join the 45 other countries – including UK, NZ, Canada, France and Germany – that have ratified the protocol and fully abide by the Convention.

The Morrison Government really has no choice but to lead by example, which includes conducting a comprehensive review of its procurement procedures and supply chains and disclosing this publicly, as part of its existing modern slavery report.

We know that women and girls are often those most affected by these harmful practices at every stage of their lives.

Research by the Walk Free Foundation has found that one in every 130 women and girls around the world is living in modern slavery.

The odds are clearly stacked against girls before they are born.

We need Government leadership to carry out important analysis and policy responses in our region, but this has been non-existent.

We need to utilise our aid program to work with countries in our region, helping improve legislative frameworks, tackle corruption, boost law enforcement cooperation and empower civil societies.

Our co-chairing of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, with Indonesia, should be a premier forum in which Australia works across the region to deliver our objectives.

And globally, Australia should be rallying a multilateral response to eradicating modern slavery and human trafficking.

We need to strengthen our partnerships with business, unions and civil societies to illuminate supply chains and address exploitation. We know that some businesses are stepping up, but more needs to be done.

We can’t leave this to be a box-ticking exercise.

Government needs to lead the way, improve awareness of the problem and fill the information gaps so that these harmful practices can no longer be ignored.

Implementing Magnitsky sanctions and playing our part in ending modern slavery are concrete actions that Australia can take to change the world for the better.

To shape it as best we can to reflect our interests and values.

Instead, we have announcements of intentions to come up with a plan, without any delivery - on modern slavery, aid policy, soft power and climate to name just a few.

And remarkably, the Morrison Government is not transparent and open about how much of our development assistance program is allocated to address modern slavery.

Why would we hide our contribution to ending some of the most egregious human rights abuses in history? Unless the reason is the contribution is embarrassingly small.

Once again, the Morrison Government’s lack of urgency in tackling these issues makes Australia less credible – instead relying on an existing, deficient domestic legal framework and the same empty, undelivered promises it makes on everything else.

When we tolerate an outrageous abuse of the human rights of others, we indicate that human rights are not universal, and therefore our own rights are thrown into question.

Indeed it was President Kennedy in his famous address at the Brandenburg Gate who declared:

Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.

And so history condemns slavers and those who have willingly benefited from the enslavement of others.

The Morrison Government needs to get on the right side of history, and do what it can to break this cycle of human misery.

It has always been Labor that has charted Australia’s course through modern history; that has helped Australia define its place in the world.

That has understood that to see our interests served, Australia needs to be ambitious.

To be self-reliant.

To be leaders: consistent, reliable, principled, courageous.


It was John Curtin who led Australia through our darkest days of World War Two; whose turn to America delivered our security and paved the way for the alliance that endures.

It was Doc Evatt who helped Australia and the world secure the peace, helping drive the creation of the multilateral system that meant small and medium countries were able to work together, and not just subject to the will of the great powers.

Indeed, it was with Doc Evatt representing Australia that we joined just seven other countries to write the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and it was Evatt who was President of the United Nations General Assembly when it adopted the Declaration.

With Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister, Australia ratified 15 international human rights treaties in the space of three years, most notably the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which paved the way for the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975.

Australia signed the two landmark human rights instruments – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – within six days of his election.

And Whitlam was the first modern Western leader to engage with China.

More recently, during the Great Financial Crisis, it was Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan who drove transformation of the G20. With Australia at the table it became the most important forum for the world’s biggest economies, and steered the global response to the GFC.

And it was Kevin Rudd and Jenny Macklin who overturned the Howard Government’s opposition to adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – where we had been one of only four countries holding out.

Paul Keating and Gareth Evans, seeking our security in Asia - not from Asia.

Gareth Evans leading the Cambodia Peace Accords.

And Julia Gillard paving the way for our expanded partnership with India – a relationship critical to the future of our region.

Contrast this tradition of leadership with the shallow and reflexive approach we see today.

Our world is being reshaped and Australia has to work harder to secure our interests and promote our values.

We have to return to our leadership role, being a partner of choice in our region, helping our neighbours.

But we have a prime minister who only governs for himself, who puts his own domestic political interests, and his day to day political management, ahead of the national interest.

After eight long years in office, and recurrent political crises, Mr Morrison has abandoned our leadership role in the region, leaving it for others to fill the vacuum.

This is to Australia’s detriment.

Labor will invest in all of our levers of power and influence to build our region’s resilience.

As I’ve said many times, you can’t fund a Pacific step up with a Southeast Asia step down.

But that’s exactly what Scott Morrison has done.

The same complacency that has seen Australia languishing outside the top 100 countries for vaccine rollout is the same complacency Australia takes to the world stage.

There are no wins by vacating the space - we have to step up and do the work.

Labor will correct this by investing financially and intellectually in the stability and resilience of the region, including Southeast Asia.

Central to stability and resilience is effective and inclusive governance, requiring transparency and a recognition of the importance of the rule of law.

We want to work with countries to build a region that is stable, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty.

We want to cooperate to strengthen the rules of the road, boost our shared pandemic recoveries, and build our resilience to future threats.

We will reprise Australia’s global multilateral leadership - not just on climate change but also on upholding human rights and ending modern slavery.

The alternative is that our region and our world is shaped by others, in their interests.

The alternative is passive observation of the collapse of international law; being bystanders to the unpicking of human rights principles it took hundreds – if not thousands – of years to establish.

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has said -

The force of … fundamental rights binds us together as human beings, regardless of our sex, race, belief, sexual orientation, nationality, migration status or any other factor. These core values and principles are essential to the maintenance of our mutual peace, prosperity, and sustainable development.

We can’t pick and choose the human rights we defend. We have to defend them everywhere.

Australia has been a leader before, and we can be a leader again.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.