Social Inclusion and Human Rights: Strange Bedfellows on the Road to an Authentically Australian Inclusion Agenda?

Article excerpt

What would the Australian concept of social inclusion look like if we bring together what have so far been distinct paradigms--human rights and social inclusion--with the aim of developing a coherent and progressive policy agenda?

This is a timely question, given the emerging prominence of social inclusion in public policy, and in light of the current debate about whether to adopt a federal Charter of Human Rights.

In addition, despite its potential strength in recognising the multi-dimensional causes of marginalisation, contemporary discussions of social inclusion risk the loss of specific human rights content, to the detriment of both policy frameworks.

Human rights and marginalised communities

Put simply, human rights are a set of standards below which a government must not fall in its treatment of and relationship with its people.

Derived largely from international treaties and custom, and through domestic legislation, these rights tend to fall into the categories of civil and political rights on one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights on the other. However, it is well understood and accepted that you cannot realise one without the other--they are 'indivisible'. For example, you cannot fully realise the right to life, if you do not have access to medical treatment. This lesson is one that many marginalised people know well, although they may not use the language of human rights to describe it.

Human rights possess normative as well as legal value. So 'by respecting a person's human rights, we make a statement that we value them as a fellow member of the human race'. (1)

Thus, discrimination and other breaches of human rights law offend the human rights norms of fairness, respect, equality and dignity. As does social exclusion, which is both an obstacle to the attainment of human rights, and evidence that rights are denied. (2)

For example, a person from a community with entrenched disadvantage may say that being respected, having opportunities in life and having a say in what happens in the community, are important issues for them--just as they are for everybody.

Yet, when decision-makers consider these issues, they are much more likely to think in programmatic terms, bound up in notions of welfare, than as a set of entitlements and responsibilities that we all share.

This may be because human rights are incorrectly seen as the exclusive domain of lawyers and the courts, and therefore blunt tools for transformative policymaking. However, this does not mean that human rights are not a sound basis for decision making in the realms of social policy, it just means that our equalities law need modernising. This process is now underway in Victoria. (3)

In Victoria, we have the advantage of being two years into the implementation of the cultural change process associated with the adoption of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006. This Charter combines a range of rights protections in one law. It imposes on public authorities a positive duty to comply with the civil and political rights contained in the Charter--and to do so in every facet of the work of government.

This includes its law making, policy development, service delivery and in matters that come before courts and tribunals. The Victorian Charter also makes it possible for ordinary people to challenge existing public services and policies to make them more fair and humane for all.

We have had the opportunity to see how human rights can work when they are legally embedded in policymaking, and developing some important messages that will be heard in the development of social inclusion.

Social inclusion as a public policy paradigm in Australia

Social inclusion emerged from critiques of traditional approaches to poverty and disadvantage that focussed on income deprivation alone.

As a policy construct, social inclusion responds to social exclusion, which recognises that the lives of the most disadvantaged in society are typified by exclusion from the things necessary for full economic, social and civic life. …