Embedding Human Dignity among National Priorities: A Look at Australia under Prime Minister Gillard

Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard giving out Citizenship Certificates to new Australian Citizens. In a roundtable discussion organized by Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security last month, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard shared her insights on women and leadership. She also made common cause with one of this publication's predominant themes: human dignity. As she listed the policies that defined her short, tempestuous three years at Australia’s helm, Ms. Gillard noted that the job creation and economic growth over which her government had presided were of only limited benefit if unalloyed to notions of the dignity of the individual. Following on from Professor Mark Lagon’s recent piece on the role of global institutions in advancing the cause of human dignity, Ms. Gillard’s remarks offer a timely opportunity to consider the status of human dignity in domestic politics.

Ms. Gillard, now a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, reminded her Georgetown audience that true equality of opportunity could only be achieved with sustained economic growth and low unemployment. She was quick to add a caveat, however, noting that her government had focused on policies that cultivated citizens’ sense of pride and dignity, not simply those that buttressed quarterly employment data.

It is an area in which Ms. Gillard is well versed. As Federal Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations in 2009, Ms. Gillard was the architect of sweeping labor law reform that reintroduced collective bargaining rights, award conditions, and protections against unfair dismissal, all of which her predecessors had stripped away. In doing so, she realigned the country with International Labour Organisation employment standards and fulfilled the promise that had propelled the Australian Labour Party to victory in the 2007 federal election—its first in a decade.

Ms. Gillard also referred her audience to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, perhaps the defining legislative achievement of her tenure. With bipartisan support and an emotional speech on the floor of Federal Parliament in mid-2013, Ms. Gillard enacted the $20 billion insurance program that would guarantee every Australian with a disability “the security and dignity that every Australian deserves.” The bipartisanship itself was rare enough in this day and age; the sight of an entire nation consciously and happily sacrificing a further, if small, portion of their paycheck to provide for the less fortunate bordered on the surreal.

Such initiatives are arguably the prerogative of countries with means. That Australia sits atop a gold mine—or, more accurately, an iron ore mine—is not lost on any national economist. Australia’s resource and energy exports to China rose from $3.9 billion in 2001 to $62.4 billion in 2011, a fact often cited by the Labor Party’s detractors as evidence that Australia’s natural endowments, rather than shrewd economic policy, were responsible for Australia’s relatively safe passage through the global financial crisis.

This should not detract from the fact that the flagship policies of the Labor Government under Ms. Gillard and her predecessor Kevin Rudd were underpinned by a preoccupation with the protection of the dignity of the individual. But it begs a question: what will we sacrifice to protect human dignity?

Australia’s recent federal election, which Ms. Gillard did not contest, was largely fought over which party was better equipped to stop sea-borne asylum seekers arriving on Australian shores. The parties announced progressively harsher measures to “stop the boats,” promising to deny asylum-seekers access to the Australian justice system, never to settle boat arrivals in Australian territory, and bring in the military to deal with this “emergency” on Australia’s borders.

During the Georgetown discussion, an audience member asked Ms. Gillard to explain why a country with such an impressive track record of caring for its weaker citizens seemed so pre-occupied with defending itself against some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Ms. Gillard responded that many Australians, with the assistance of intemperate media outlets, had made “an emotional leap” and begun to associate the stresses in their lives with the arrival of unidentified boats on their shores.

The impression that the nation’s politicians had been complicit in the emotional leap taken by their constituents was left undisturbed, and so it is here that more work remains to be done. If the concept of human dignity is ever to hold its own in a conflict with potentially opposing notions of sovereignty or national security, it will surely be when a nation’s leaders elevate it accordingly. Australia has proven capable of stunning achievements in protecting the dignity of the individual. Whether Australia and other developed nations are capable of permanently embedding the notion of human dignity in the political discourse will depend largely on the will of their leaders to recast their priorities accordingly.