Public ideas

Stan Grant’s reflections on the wounds of history

“The wounds of history are a festering sore. Everywhere there are those who weaponise the past”.

So writes Stan Grant in a short essay: Resentment breeds in the wounds of war, as Seamus Heaney and his ancient inspiration still show today.

He starts with a reflection of Heaney’s play The Cure at Troy, which Heaney wrote as a metaphor for the conflicts in Northern Ireland. Heaney asks if we can sustain our moral principles when we are bearing the weight of historical injustices. We are tempted to set aside those principles, just once perhaps, when we are confronted with gross brutality and injustice.

Grant moves on to the war in Ukraine, China’s burden of historical humiliation and the situation of indigenous Australians.

Beware of sweet talk, beware of those who tell us what we want to hear, beware of those who duck hard issues, he warns us. “The Voice referendum demands that Australia confronts its history. The Voice – among other things — is a call for truth”.

Human rights – another go at strengthening our democracy

In 1988 the Hawke government put four referendums to the vote in one sitting. Two concerned human rights. One of those was to enshrine the “one-vote-one-value” ideal in elections, state and federal, a similar referendum having failed in 1974.

The other, recognizing the limited scope of rights specified in the Constitution, was to specify further rights – trial by jury, freedom of religion and the assurance of fair terms for people whose property is acquired by any government.

All four proposals were defeated, the fair elections proposal gaining only 38 percent support and the extension of rights achieving only 31 percent support.

Paradoxically religious bodies were opposed to constitutional freedom of religion, because they became convinced that such a provision could somehow jeopardize government support for religious schools. But the main reason these proposals failed lay less in their content than in the tactic of the opposition – headed by John Howard’s strongman Peter Reith – to seek the defeat of the referenda as a means to embarrass and de-legitimize the Hawke government. Plus ça change.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has now mounted a case for a human rights act, reminding us that “Australia is the only liberal democracy in the world that does not have a national act or charter of rights that explains what people’s basic rights are and how they can be protected”. We enjoy a certain amount of protection from human rights acts in some states – Victoria, Queensland and the ACT – but we have no Commonwealth legislative or constitutional guarantee of human rights. Australia has signed a number of UN conventions on human rights, but these have no legal enforcement mechanism.

You can hear AHRC President Rosalind Croucher explaining the Commission’s proposals on ABC Breakfast: Calls for a national human rights charter. She points to areas of public policy where a human rights act may have come into play in recent years, including Robodebt (it would have provided another, clearer exposition of the scheme’s illegality), and some of the extreme Covid-19 restrictions, such as those which prohibited Australian citizens from returning from overseas.