Former President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs. Photo by: Australian Human Rights Commission / CC BY

MELBOURNE, Australia — In her keynote address to an audience representing the private sector, government, NGO, and researchers at the Global Compact Network Australia 2019 conference, former President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs discussed the change in conversation that has emerged on engaging the private sector in the discussion on human rights — and the challenges that still exist.

Following her address, she discussed with Devex her concerns and her role in the ongoing conversation of human rights and the role of the private sector.

“There is reason for optimism — we are in a period of change and disruption, and it is an opportunity for leaders to do things they wouldn’t dare do before.”

— Gillian Triggs, former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

In a forum such as this conference, small- and medium-sized businesses are not represented but you have highlighted concern with rights breaches in this space — including among franchises. How do we engage smaller businesses on issues of human rights?

An event like this will always attract large organizations because they are very aware of social responsibility as part of their corporate branding and I think have a genuine interest — it’s not opportunistic. But these kinds of meetings can ignore the reality on the ground.

Focusing on the top end and leadership is important. But it’s got to be a clear eye to getting to small and medium business where the greatest harm is probably being done on a daily basis.

The United Nations tried with treaties [including the Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights] to establish obligations on companies, but there was an absolute furor internationally and it failed. This is why they have moved to these voluntary codes. What these tend to do over time is change normative behavior.

But it is still hard to get to small and medium businesses through voluntary codes because they will ignore them. They often don’t have the time or know they exist, and certainly don’t have the energy and resources.

The big companies do get it, but they perhaps aren’t being as vigilant through their supply chains. And that is something we worked on in the Human Rights Commission — to get the supply chain operating better.

But we also have to help small- to medium-sized businesses by providing them with the information or toolboxes to guide them in this space. And I think there is a lot of good faith that people do want to do things properly.

What do you see as the challenges at the other end of the scale — with multinational operations?

International law is done well in terms of individual and state responsibility — but the corporate world, which is a driver of so much that is going on, has slipped through. They complain about the regulatory environment they have to operate within as national laws and requirements vary. So they move capital around to where it is least onerous.

It’s not unregulated, but in international law, it is thin and weak. This can allow companies to flourish, despite regulations.

How has the conversation on human rights and the role of businesses changed in your experience?

It has been a journey, and it’s been a long one. But today, where you have 250 people turning up to an event like this, it is happening.

When I was a young lawyer, my thinking would have been to stick to the law. You would give very technical, black letter legal advice. Today, a lawyer’s role is much more expensive than that.

The nature of legal practice and legal advice is changing. Speaking direct about the wider issues — privately — can be very effective. If you had have done that 30 years ago, the client would get another lawyer.

There has been a very important change and there is reason for optimism — we are in a period of change and disruption, and it is an opportunity for leaders to do things they wouldn’t dare do before.

I do think the momentum is being driven by royal commissions — including the one on banking and finance — which shines a light on these practices that show the people in charge have no moral compass. There is still a problem of culture within organizations that is focused on self-interest, such as shares and salaries. This has shone through in the royal commission [on banking and finance].

What is your role now to help shine a light on practices and help build a rights-based approach in business?

I still have the flow-over from my former job. People are still asking me to speak on the subject — and as long as they are willing to ask me to speak, I will keep speaking. Now that will fade away, and that’s fine. But for the moment, it has been going full-steam for two years, and I expect it will for at least another year.

The public speaking is useful because people listen — and they can digest a bit of the law as well. But I’m 74 this year, and I can’t keep it up for very much longer. I give myself another couple of years and then will retire from the scene.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I really would like Australians to be more attuned to fundamental rights — it doesn’t need to be about complicated law because this is not complicated. In Australia, we do need to return to basic, common law fundamentals.

I hope I have encouraged people to question government policy and demand more of government and compliance, and they see me as contributing to the awareness. Currently, it does not appear that government will be leaders in this space — and that is why we are here, asking questions of business about their role in human rights.

Devex is a media partner for the 2019 Global Compact Network Australia conference. Follow Lisa Cornish and Devex for insights from the conference.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.