Rural Australia: A Big, Red Gap in the Human Rights Agenda


Donald Trump’s rise to political power shocked many people. It particularly shocked many Democrats, who could not understand why anyone would want to ‘Make America Great Again’ when, in the words of Barack Obama, ‘America is already great’.

Of course, for many people, America is not already great. Such people feel unseen and unheard by a political system that doesn’t work for them. If they had any doubt that mainstream politicians don’t understand or care about their issues, Obama’s words would have confirmed it.

Rural Americans are one group of people who might have felt overlooked, and with good reason: rural poverty in the US is well-documented. Rural America is also where Trump has the greatest support.

A similar picture exists in many countries, including Australia. The return of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party shocked many people in Australia’s cities, but was perhaps less shocking to rural Australians, who have long felt neglected by the city-based parties. As with Trump, One Nation’s support is strongest in rural Australia. It is also closely linked to socioeconomic disadvantage.

Although it is common to talk of the issues facing rural Australians in terms of disadvantage, it is less common to talk of such issues in terms of human rights. Yet many of the issues facing rural Australians are human rights issues. They are just as important as many of the issues that receive far more airtime.   

In rural Australia, the right to work is threatened by a lack of jobs.[1] This contributes to high levels of unemployment, which has negative effects for both individuals and their communities.

The right to an adequate standard of living is threatened by high levels of poverty in rural Australia. This is, of course, closely linked to the lack of jobs and to a lack of social services. 

The right to health is threatened by a desperate shortage of doctors and medical facilities. Many patients do not get timely care, causing them to suffer from more serious problems that could have been avoided.

The right to water is threatened by a lack of direct water supply to many homes in rural Australia, and inadequate water supply for many others. This is closely linked to the issue of drought in rural Australia.

The people who are most vulnerable in urban Australia are often even more vulnerable in rural Australia. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) notes that particular human rights issues face young people, older people, people with a mental illness, Indigenous people and LGBTI people living in rural Australia.

Despite the human rights issues facing rural Australians, the AHRC has no Rural Commissioner. Its website lists only four projects on the rights of rural Australians, the most recent of which took place in the year 2000. In other words, the human rights of people in rural areas have been overlooked in Australia, just as they have been overlooked in the US.

The blame for this doesn’t rest with the AHRC – it can only do so much with its limited funds. The blame rests with governments, which have failed to give enough funds to the AHRC and to social services in rural Australia. Until this happens, many rural Australians will remain sceptical of the city-based political parties and human rights organisations.


The author, Sean Bowes, is the Human Rights Defender Student Editor for the summer semester 2016/17. He is in his final year of a combined Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws at the University of New South Wales. To read more articles from The Student Voice, click here.

Photo: supplied by author.

[1] The human rights issues for discussion were selected from the following source: Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, ‘The Human Rights of Rural Australians’ (Occasional Paper, May 1996) <