The National Human Rights Consultations, launched by the federal government late last year and chaired by Father Frank Brennan, is finally coming to the end of its public consultation phase, with general public submissions closing on 15 June.

There will obviously be a lot of interest in the contents of the report flowing out of the consultation process, as well as how the government decides to respond to it.

But putting aside the impact of the consultations on future human rights laws and attitudes, it will also be worth examining the effectiveness of the processes used during those consultations.

This has been a far more public consultation process than those usually carried out by or on behalf of governments, and has sought to use a wide variety of processes to engage people.  The effectiveness of the process itself merits some further examination in considering whether other parliamentary and political processes should adopt some of the practices.

The committee carrying out the consultations seems to have gone to great length to engage with ‘ordinary’ people, rather than just the usual suspects.  The terms of reference have been kept brief and clear, and the Committee has also emphasised that submissions can be as short as people like, and in any format that people are comfortable with. My understanding is that the inquiry also has the capacity to receive submissions in a range of different languages.

In terms of open public engagement, one of the more interesting aspects of the consultations has been the attempt to use an open online forum to seek peoples’ views and enable some debate.  This process is part of the government’s trials of online consultation.

I am told it’s the first online discussion forum established by a government department in Australia that is publishing comments in real time without filtering them through a public service legal team first.

In addition, all comments are considered a submission to the wider public consultation on human rights legislation, and people can keep contributing through the online process for an extra two weeks – until June 26.

It is being run through the Open Forum website – “an independent, non-profit, collaborative think-tank built around an interactive discussion website” which seeks to “provide a platform for focused dialogue on Australian public policy and social issues.”

The process allows debate on each of the three core questions which constitute the Terms of Reference of the Inquiry, as well as an extra  discussion page on whether or not Australia should have a Bill of Rights.

As to be expected in any public forum, online or otherwise, many of the contributions are off-topic or targeting people rather than issues and ideas.  But there are also some worthwhile contributions and presumably many more people reading the comments without contributing.
Unfortunately, the discussion on the main introduction page of the online consultation forum kicks off with some off-the-wall attacks by the Atheist Foundation on the whole inquiry, on the basis that it is chaired by a priest who therefore “cannot adjudicate with an impartial mind on matters conflicting with his faith” and is “a biased and inflexible ideologically driven person,” purely on the basis that he has personal religious beliefs.

I’d usually ignore that sort of nonsense, but being an atheist myself, I cringe every time I see people using the atheist label as an excuse to engage in religious vilification.  When comments and responses from some equally fundamentalist Christians start appearing, it quickly feels like the whole idea might not have been such a good one.

But the forum does move on from the ranting to some of the substantive points under consideration.  As well as occasional brief promptings from Frank Brennan, contributions are also brought in from Law Professors George Williams and Tom Campbell to clarify some of the legal terms and concepts.

No doubt there are better ways to use these processes and tools for more effective and meaningful consultation, but for all it’s limitations, I suggest it is far more meaningful and clearly more representative than the standard inquiry processes where submissions are sought from and hearings held with people from a fairly narrow segment of society. These ‘usual suspects’ play a valuable role, but they also can, and in this inquiry no doubt have participated, much the same as usual.  It is the chance to engage with a wider group of people that is the real benefit of online consultation.

Open Forum’s ‘blogger-in-chief’, Sally Rose, says “The National Human Rights Online Consultation is part of the Australian Government’s online consultation trial, so it’s right that it be critically analysed and understood as a learning process.” She also pleads for any ideas about how to much such mechanisms more effective and valuable for all concerned.

I hope time is taken to do that, regardless of the outcome of the debates for or against more legal protection for human rights in Australia.

In addition to the online forum, the Committee has held public consultation meetings in out of the way places such as Weipa, Tennant Creek, Coober Pedy and Geraldton, as well as Aboriginal communities like Yarrabah and Palm Island and outer urban areas such as Penrith and Ipswich which usually get bypassed by such processes.

The Consultation also used a Facebook page, (which they actually kept reasonably up to date!) and Frank Brennan, as Chair of the Consultation, also kept his Facebook page updated with photos and brief reflections (including the occasional quote from a High Court judgement) as he travelled around hearing from the public in many different areas.

The only real annoyance I’ve had with the process was the difficulty in avoiding confusion between these National Human Rights Consultations and the totally separate work continuing to be carried out by the Australian Human Rights Commission.  I think it was a very good idea to keep this consultation process independent and separate from the Commission, but it wasn’t always easy to make the difference clear to people.

It’s hard to know what else they could have to try to engage the community, although any ideas in that regard I’m sure would be welcome.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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