The Australian Human Rights Commission: A Study of Issue Prioritization and Agenda-Setting

Dr. Rhonda Evans

Australia alone among Western democracies has resisted adopting a national bill of rights. Instead, it has fashioned a rights-protection regime that consists of international treaty obligations, domestic legislation, and a special body tasked with promoting and protecting human rights. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), as this body has been known since 2008, plays a central role in human rights advocacy in Australia. It is also one of the world’s first National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). These state-created institutions face the delicate task of advancing human rights, often against the state itself. After decades of vigorous promotion by the UN, today over 100 NHRIs exist around the world. But, we still know little about how these institutions work and the conditions under which they are effective. Scholars contend that NHRIs can perform critical agenda-setting functions. This paper evaluates that claim by asking: has the AHRC been a consequential agenda-setter? It addresses this question by employing an innovative, policy-dynamics theoretical framework and marshaling a new source of data. In so doing, this paper offers a descriptively rich account of the issues that the AHRC prioritized between 1986 and 2018 and analyzes the extent to which the AHRC put these issues on various policy-making agendas and to what effect. Drawing from the AHRC’s own reports (1986-2018), it identifies and traces the human rights issues that the AHRC prioritized over time—in other words, its policy agenda. Using data from the Australian Policy Agendas Project, the paper evaluates the AHRC’s agenda-setting performance by comparing the AHRC’s agenda with the agendas of other institutions. For five issues on which the AHRC engaged in sustained advocacy campaigns, the paper assesses the consequences of the AHRC’s agenda-setting role in terms of problem definition and issue framing. Whereas many analyses tend to treat NHRIs as nonpolitical, expert-oriented bureaucracies, this paper offers an expressly political perspective, one that treats NHRIs as sites of political contestation and as political actors that possess and pursue their own policy interests. It sheds new light on the operation and effectiveness of NHRIs and the politics of human rights in Australia.