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(Sydney) – Three political parties and two independents running in the Australian federal elections set out their human rights priorities in response to a Human Rights Watch questionnaire, Human Rights Watch said today. The parties gave their positions on a range of domestic and foreign policy human rights issues, including whistleblower protection and offshore asylum policy, in advance of polls on July 2, 2016.

“The parties’ answers on key human rights issues provide important insights into how Australian human rights policy could take shape after the elections,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “We hope this information will be helpful to voters in deciding which party to support.”

The questionnaire was sent on April 27 to the three largest political parties (Coalition, Labor and Greens), all of whom responded. It was also sent to minor parties and independents, of whom independent Senator David Leyonhjelm (Liberal Democrats senator for New South Wales) and Andrew Wilkie (independent member for Denison) responded.

The questions related to domestic policy topics including protection of journalists, whistleblowers, and activists; disproportionate incarceration of indigenous people; asylum seeker policy; and marriage equality.

Foreign policy questions dealt with offshore processing of asylum seekers; Australia’s advocacy against the death penalty; tackling human rights violations in the Asia-Pacific region; specific country concerns in China, Indonesia, and elsewhere; and violence against women in Papua New Guinea. The compilation of full responses to the questionnaire can be found on the Human Rights Watch website.

“We intend to hold the parties to their promises that uphold human rights and take issue with their positions that don’t,” Pearson said. “Whoever wins should know that civil society will be monitoring their actions from day one.”

Excerpted responses:

Domestic policy

  • What changes, if any, should be made to Australia’s laws covering the rights of journalists, whistleblowers, and activists to speak out on matters of public interest?

The Coalition[1] said that they “will introduce new whistleblower protections for people who disclose information about tax misconduct to the Australian Tax Office.”

The Labor Party said that, “[t]he public has the right to know the truth, the media has the right to publish the truth, and whistleblowers deserve protection for exposing the truth.” Labor will continue to oppose the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill, which aims to “silence the voice of the community on environmental matters.”

The Greens said legal protections for public sector whistleblowers should be “extended to cover the private and not-for-profit sectors.” For financial security, the Greens advocate for “a model based on the US False Claims Act where whistleblowers can be supported by getting a set proportion of any additional revenue collected by government agencies as a result of the information provided. This is a particularly important measure in relation to companies or individuals evading the tax office.”

Senator David Leyonhjelm (Liberal Democrats senator for New South Wales) said “the suite of national security legislation… enacted by the Abbott/Turnbull government adversely affected free speech and should be repealed as a matter of urgency. Taken together, they attacked freedom of speech, undermined press freedom, attacked whistleblowers, undermined legal professional privilege, and provided for mandatory data retention.”

Andrew Wilkie (independent member for Denison) said he has introduced legislation twice that would provide more protection for whistleblowers and “the current federal public interest disclosure framework is seriously flawed. It fails to encourage and facilitate in many material ways the disclosure of corruption and wrongdoing in the public service. Its definitions and provisions are ambiguous, obscure and restrictive, and it excludes or impedes several classes of potential whistleblowers including those employed as intelligence officers, parliamentarians and parliamentary staff.”

  • What would you do to address the disproportionate incarceration of indigenous people in Australian prisons and jails?

All parties said they would work closely with the states and territories to address these issues.

The Coalition said they will “address the issues that have led to the unacceptably high rate of Indigenous incarceration. This includes increasing education, training and employment opportunities and tackling the misuse of alcohol and other drugs.” They will also develop a “prison to work” approach that addresses long-term unemployment.

The Labor Party said it will use “community-driven and national strategies that empower communities to address the complex causes of incarceration and crime.” Labor “will establish a working group of State, Territory and local government agencies, as well as key community organizations, to develop measurable targets that address rising incarceration rates and build safer communities” and “establish a national coordinating body to build the evidentiary base, collect data and measure progress.”

The Greens will call on the government to “adopt a national justice target to address the disproportionate incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” and call “for the implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, [and]… an end to mandatory detention.”

The Liberal Democrats said that “people should not be incarcerated for non-payment of fines. … Cannabis should be legalized for both recreational and medicinal use, thus avoiding the disproportionate incarceration of both poor and the black people for drug offences, and as a corollary other non-violent drug offences should be medicalized (as in Portugal).”

Wilkie said Australia should “implement national targets to reduce rates of Indigenous incarceration” and “work constructively with Indigenous communities to address societal problems.” Wilkie said that Australia should “implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.”

Foreign policy

  • What should be done about the situation of refugees and people seeking asylum who are being held on Manus and Nauru?

The Coalition said that “[t]he refugee determination process in Papua New Guinea is managed and administered by the Papua New Guinea Government according to their domestic laws and processes. If a transferee is found to be a refugee, they are permitted to permanently settle in PNG.” And likewise for Nauru, although “if a transferee is found to be a refugee, they may settle in Nauru for up to ten years or settle in Cambodia.”

The Labor Party supports retaining offshore processing but “does not believe offshore facilities should be run as punitive holding cells. They need to be humane and offer people seeking safety exactly that. Fast and efficient processing should occur so that claims for protection can be determined quickly and fairly. Labor will implement independent oversight of Australian-funded processing facilities” and “will work with our regional neighbors to find lasting resettlement options.”

The Greens said they would abolish offshore detention and “remove all children and their families from detention immediately, including those in offshore detention and on Nauru.”

The Liberal Democrats said it is “more comfortable with offshore processing than mass drownings, although neither situation is ideal.”

Wilkie said “Australia’s offshore processing centers must be immediately closed, all people housed within brought to Australia, and their claims processed as soon as possible.”

  • Australia has established ongoing “human rights dialogues” with China, Vietnam, and Laos. How will you make these dialogues more effective in promoting the human rights of the people in those countries?

The Coalition said that “strengthening our human rights engagement is an important component of the Coalition government’s bilateral relationships in our region. An important means of achieving this has been Ministerial-level human rights dialogues where issues have been discussed in an open and frank forum.”

The Labor Party said it will increase “the reporting on human rights dialogues in the annual reports of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; [develop] clear strategies and benchmarks for each dialogue and; [increase] the human rights training among Australian diplomats and [ensure] that all our diplomatic posts undertake human rights monitoring.”

The Greens said they would involve nongovernmental organizations, human rights experts and civil society in these dialogues, improve transparency and “[e]ach dialogue should be results oriented, with clear, time bound objectives so that progress can be measured… at the conclusion of each dialogue process, the Government should table a report on progress, and time set aside for consideration of this report in the parliament.” 

  • What role is there for public – as opposed to private or “quiet” – diplomacy in promoting human rights abroad?

The Coalition said that, “Australia engages with the international community with active, practical advocacy, sensitivity and fairness, and a willingness to speak out against human rights violations and abuses… Under the Coalition, Australia will continue to play an active part in promoting Human Rights Council resolutions on freedom of expression, the safety of journalists, human rights defenders, human rights and the internet, and civil society.”

The Labor Party said that they will privately and publicly raise concerns about human rights abuses in other countries: “private human rights diplomacy can be enhanced by, where appropriate, public diplomacy, advocacy, reporting and condemnation of human rights abuses.”

The Greens said that, “Australia should give much greater weight to public diplomacy in determining its human rights approach. Australia should speak more forthrightly about human rights violations in countries, particularly in our region and those with whom we have direct trade and political relationships.”

  • What should Australia do to address the growing crackdown on human rights in China?

The Coalition said concerns are raised “through a variety of channels, including ministerial meetings; our bilateral Human Rights Dialogue; officials in Beijing and Canberra; and public statements. The Government recently co-sponsored a joint statement in the UN Human Rights Council alongside eleven other countries.”

The Labor Party said it has raised concerns, privately and publicly, about human rights abuses in China. It “will support stronger international mechanisms and processes for monitoring human rights violations and will encourage the development of regional dialogue on human rights issues in our region.”

The Greens said “Australia should use its relationship with China as an avenue to advocate, both privately and publicly, for an end to human rights abuses in China.”

  • On your first visit to Indonesia, what human rights issues will you raise with Indonesian officials?

The Coalition said that “[w]hile Australia recognizes and respects Indonesia’s sovereign right to apply its laws, Australia is strongly opposed to the death penalty and supports its universal abolition. The Australian Government condemns all violence in the Papua provinces. The rights of all citizens should be upheld and credible allegations of human rights abuses should be investigated. Australia believes firmly that the freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right belonging to all individuals - including those belonging to religious minorities and that this freedom must be respected in all countries in accordance with international human rights law. Australia is a strong advocate for non-discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The Labor Party said it “will raise the following, among other issues, with Indonesia and all countries: A global moratorium on the death penalty; The protection and empowerment of women and girls; The rights of religious minorities; LGBTI rights; Treatment of prisoners and; Disability and mental health rights. As a country of first asylum, Labor is committed to working closely and cooperatively to assist Indonesia as well as the many other countries impacted by people movement to ensure the protection and processing of people seeking asylum under the Refugee Convention. In addition, a Shorten Labor Government will raise issues relating to human rights in West Papua with our Indonesian counterparts.”

The Greens said it is “deeply concerned about the ongoing use of the death penalty in Indonesia,” and believes it has a “responsibility to do all we can to oppose the death penalty.” It is “deeply concerned about the situation in West Papua, and will continue to raise this as a key human rights issue, including detention of peaceful protesters and advocates, continued limitations on media and research access, and the right to self-determination. Discrimination against women is a continuing concern in Indonesia, with Human Rights Watch reporting Indonesia has a total of 279 discriminatory local regulations targeting women. Bylaws also discriminate against LGBTIQ and religious minorities. Religious minorities in Indonesia continue to be the target of attacks from militant groups, and this is a key human rights concern.”

The Coalition did not respond under each individual question but responded under relevant thematic subheadings. See here.

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