Earlier this week former Howard government minister Philip Ruddock was appointed as Australia’s Special Envoy for Human Rights. While Ruddock’s appointment has been criticised due to his role in developing Australia’s asylum seeker policy, we also need to look closely at his history on LGBTIQ rights. In doing so, we can get a sense of the Turnbull government’s direction on these issues.
"Mr Ruddock will focus on advancing Australia's human rights priorities of good governance, freedom of expression, gender equality, the rights of Indigenous peoples, and national human rights institutions.”
Ruddock will travel the world to promote Australia’s candidacy for membership of the Human Rights Council and represent Australia at international human rights events. He will become the Australian face of the issue of human rights abroad.
It is for this reason that many have rightfully criticised the appointment. In his time as immigration minister during the Howard government, it was Ruddock who designed the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’. That policy has been internationally condemned as a human rights disaster, most often by the UN itself. Making Ruddock the face of Australian human rights advocacy therefore seems a bit of a joke.
But it is not just Ruddock’s history on asylum seekers that should concern us. As attorney-general, Ruddock shepherded through the changes to the Marriage Act in 2004 that explicitly banned same-sex marriage. He has remained opposed to same-sex marriage ever since.
This appointment therefore says a lot about our government’s approach not just to the UN, but to LGBTIQ rights.
Ruddock’s views are at odds with much of the direction of the UN. Whilst LGBTIQ rights are still contentious within many UN states (and in turn the UN General Assembly), the organisation as a whole seems to be moving forward on the issue.
In 2011 for example, the UN Human Rights Council passed a ‘historic resolution’ calling for equal rights for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation. South Africa proposed the resolution, stating that “no-one should be subject to discrimination or violence due to sexual orientation or gender identity”.
Gender and sexual discrimination has been a major theme for General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, stating that he “learned to speak out because lives are at stake, and because it is our duty under the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to protect the rights of everyone, everywhere”. Combatting discrimination is also a focus of the Human Rights Office, which has developed a global education campaign on LGTBIQ discrimination called ‘Free and Equal’.
It is in this context that appointing a reactionary conservative like Ruddock is so baffling. How is Ruddock going to campaign for Australia to become a member of the Human Rights Council when his own views contradict the very direction of the body?
This is a trend for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when it comes to LGBTIQ rights. While championed as a welcome relief from the leadership of Tony Abbott, Turnbull has played a long series of political games with LGBTIQ people.
We celebrate him for his position on same-sex marriage, but it’s easy to forget that in the early days Turnbull couldn’t even make a decision without surveying his community (despite representing the seat with the highest proportion of gays and lesbians in the country).
Turnbull has sought political cover, trying as hard as he could not to upset conservative colleagues in the process. When he became prime minister, he was quick to change his position on a marriage equality plebiscite, suddenly supporting the idea. This seemed a key compromise from him in order to secure the top job, trading away LGBTIQ people (as he saw it) in order to gain power.
In reality, Ruddock is unlikely to have much impact in his new job - it will be largely a symbolic role. But his appointment is the signal regarding the PM's commitment to LGBTIQ rights.