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Beyond Bush Talks: Chris Sidoti (2000)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Beyond Bush Talks

Chris Sidoti, Human Rights
Commissioner at Infront Outback and Australian Association of Rural Nurses
Conferences, Toowoomba, Qld, 24 February 2000


Thank you for inviting
me to speak today. It is almost a year since I spoke about the Human Rights
Commission's Bush Talks consultations at the 1999 national conference
of the Australian Association of Rural Nurses in Adelaide. I spoke in
particular about some of the health concerns raised in the consultations.
Today I would like to look beyond Bush Talks in more detail at
some of the areas of particular concern which were raised and then explain
some of the Commission's continuing work on human rights in rural Australia.

Background to Bush

The Human Rights
Commission launched Bush Talks almost two years ago in Tamworth,
country NSW. Since that time I have visited over 50 communities in regional,
rural and remote areas throughout Australia, from isolated indigenous
communities in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, to large
regional centres such as Cairns in Queensland and small farming towns
such as Wudinna in South Australia.

Through Bush Talks
we sought to

  • listen to people
    in the country about their human rights concerns
  • inform people
    in the country about their human rights.

They told us loud
and clear that many people in country Australia are doing it tough, confirming
what many of us had known for a long time. I am very pleased that following
the positive responses to our Bush Talks, a lot of senior politicians
are now following in our footsteps, doing the rounds of rural Australia,
finally seeing with their own eyes and hearing with their own ears the
distress in many rural areas. Non-government organisations are also turning
their heads to rural Australia. ACOSS, for example, recently issued a
statement calling for targeted public infrastructure investment in rural
Australia. And of course the Regional Australia Summit last October brought
together leaders and representation of all key sectors, in an unprecedented
way, to discuss the situation in rural Australia. It sought to develop
a common approach to which government at all levels, the private sector,
community organisations and country people themselves could be committed
in a new partnership for integrated community development. I will say
more about this a little later.

I can only hope that
all this attention produces some real change for country Australia, change
that goes beyond a piecemeal approach and rhetoric.

Bush Talks
demonstrated that despite the great differences among country towns and
regions there were some consistent human rights concerns across a wide
cross section of rural Australia. These were not necessarily issues which
many people are accustomed to think of as human rights - that is, human
rights violations in civil and political life such as the right to vote
or freedom from arbitrary arrest. Although civil and political rights
were discussed at meetings, the most important issues raised with us again
and again concerned economic, social and cultural rights, for example
the rights to adequate food, health care, education, water, shelter, work
and social security and the right to benefit from scientific knowledge
and to take part in cultural life.

The main international
human rights treaty which articulates these rights is the International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
(ICESCR). Australia
ratified this treaty twenty years ago. By doing so Australia has committed
itself to progressively realising these rights. Most importantly, we committed
ourselves to ensuring that these rights are guaranteed to all people in
Australia without discrimination, no matter what your gender, race or
language or where you live.

Despite this commitment,
we found in Bush Talks that many people in rural and remote areas
are missing out on these basic rights. The scale and pattern of these
human rights 'gaps' indicates more than just individual cases of neglect.
Rural Australia has been neglected on a large scale.

I am sure you are
all familiar with the figures that show that in the health area in particular,
people who live in rural and remote areas are at a disadvantage, so I
will not detail them here. Although governments have begun to turn their
attention to problems such as the lack of health professional, hospital
closures and insufficient nursing home places in rural areas, there remains
a gross inequality not only in the access to health services but in the
general health indicators between rural and urban Australians.

Of course, these
generalisations do not apply to every region or rural town in every state
and territory. Rural and remote Australia is not homogenous by any means.
And when urban Australia also has its rich and poor, its well-resourced
and greatly disadvantaged areas. But living in the bush is itself a disadvantage.

Indeed within rural
and remote Australia there are groups of people who encounter double disadvantage
and who need our urgent assistance in targeted and specialised ways.

The rights of children
and young people in the country

One of the groups
of rural and remote Australians urgently in need are children and young

Children have the
same rights as adults. The Convention on the Rights of the Child,
which Australia ratified almost ten years ago, guarantees young people
under 18 years a full range of civil, political, economic, social and
cultural rights, including the right to express their own views and have
these views taken into account. The Convention outlines the responsibilities
of countries to ensure that these rights become realities.

In addition to these
positive rights, the Convention specifies that children have the right
to special protection and care in recognition of their vulnerability to
abuse and neglect. Other international treaties, such as ICESCR, articulate
this principle of care and protection.

Yet many participants
in Bush Talks identified overall attitudes to young people in Australia
as unsupportive of young people. As one individual in South Australia

Young people are
happy to contribute to society but political rhetoric scapegoats them.
The community sees children as problems to be endured, not our future
to be nurtured.1

I was regularly amazed
to meet young people who live in the most depressing conditions, but are
optimistic, determined and ambitious to succeed and to contribute. I was
also particularly saddened to encounter other young people whose enthusiasm
and potential are being stunted by a lack of opportunities and the inability
of adults to understand their needs. Young people are the future of the
rural towns and communities that are at this very time struggling for
survival. Young people are the key to arresting rural decline.

Bush Talks
identified some children in particular who are having a very tough time
in rural and remote Australia.

Indigenous children
and young people in rural and remote areas are especially vulnerable,
in particular in relation to health and education. Indigenous Australians
have a life expectancy 20 years lower than non-Indigenous people and the
rates of mortality are four times higher.2 These figures have
been known for a long time. In 1994 Mick Dodson, the then Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, tabled his second
report in parliament. In that report he said

Every few years,
such figures (about the poor levels of Indigenous health) are repeated
and excite attention. But I suspect that most Australians accept them
as being almost inevitable. A certain kind of industrial deafness has

It is an indictment
of all Australian governments and our country that the international aid
organisation, Medecins Sans Frontieres, is now considering a project in
a developed country for the first time - here in Australia, to improve
the health of Indigenous people.

In employment, education,
housing, access to basic services such as water and health care, the Indigenous
population comes off worst. This results directly in depriving children
of a future. As a direct result of poverty many Indigenous children suffer
from acute health problems such as under nourishment, hepatitis B and
anaemia. In Halls Creek Bush Talks was told by the Halls Creek
Failure to Thrive Committee that 40% of children under 5 are suffering
severe malnutrition, on a par with the malnutrition rates in Cambodia.4

Other children and
young people in the bush who need special attention are those requiring
access to mental health services, children with disabilities and lesbian,
gay and bisexual young people who are not adequately supported in rural

The Commission's
Outlink project seeks to address the problems of young lesbian, gay and
bisexual people in rural areas. Outlink is building a national network
for mutual support, to share knowledge, skills and resources, and to have
a common voice on issues such as community education, service provision,
funding and government policy. There are many good groups already active
in supporting these young people. The Outlink coordinator, Rodney Croome,
has told me about one he visited here in Toowoomba last week, the Silver
Wheat Society, that he said is running many excellent support programs
for gay and lesbian young people in the Darling Downs. Outlink seeks to
build on the work of the small but significant number of groups already
supporting gay and lesbian young people in rural areas and ensure that
these young people are no longer isolated but affirmed and included in
their communities.

The National Inquiry
into Rural and Remote Education

Among the many human
rights issues facing rural children, health and education were the two
most urgent cries for help. We decided that the issue of access to education
in particular needed to be investigated more thoroughly and highlighted
as an area of urgent need. Of course, these two concerns are interrelated,
and I will touch on this further in this address.

The right to education
is set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
(ICESCR 1966) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child
(1989). This right must be ensured to all without discrimination of any

Although the right
to primary and secondary education is guaranteed, the Bush Talks
consultations found that in many rural and remote areas of Australia there
are significant impediments to children's access to educational and cultural
opportunities. In response to this, the Commission initiated a National
Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education in March last year. The aims of
the inquiry were to investigate the provision of education for children
in rural and remote Australia with reference to

  • the availability
    and accessibility of both primary and secondary schooling
  • the quality of
    educational services, including technological support services
  • whether the education
    available to children with disabilities, Indigenous children and children
    from diverse cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds complies
    with their human rights.

Over the last year
we have held public hearings and community meetings with many hundreds,
perhaps thousands, of teachers, parents, students and community members
in rural and remote areas in every state and territory, received over
300 written submissions and conducted a survey of more than 3000 individuals
(more than half of them school children) in rural areas.

We heard that children
in remote and rural Australia are less likely to complete their education
than children in regional and urban centres. We also heard that some of
the main problems are the cost of schooling and the lack of income support
for families.

Many rural and remote
students need to travel long distances to get to school. While this is
an element of life in the country, for children this can mean tiring journeys
that can have a serious effect on their studies. Many remote areas do
not have public transport and are situated a long distance from a school
bus. This can mean extra costs and time for parents in transporting their
children to school or to bus routes.

Distance education
does wonderful work reaching isolated children and has some very positive
results for many students. But it is not appropriate for every child and
every family. It also needs to be adequately resourced to address the
difficulties of teaching without face to face contact and the lack of
technological infrastructure in many rural and remote areas.

Many students told
us about their lack of curriculum choice and of sporting and cultural
opportunities. In the Warmun community, for example, out in the East Kimberley,
students may have to travel hours to compete in a sports event. When asked
what they wanted, one year 8 student at Warmun said he would like something
as simple as goal posts for the school field. These are things are taken
for granted by urban students.

Lack of curriculum
choice can be a major reason for declining enrolments in secondary years
of rural schools. Many families feel they have no choice but to send their
children away to boarding school or to move to another town, to give their
children the same opportunities as children in urban areas. In some places
on the Eyre Peninsula in SA we were told that students who want to study
music have no choice but to do it by distance education. One student found
it impossible to study her instrument over the phone and eventually gave
up her study, although she was considered highly talented and wanted to
pursue this study at the tertiary level.

The right to education
is suffering most seriously in rural and remote Indigenous communities.

In a submission to
the inquiry ATSIC outlined its great concern about the continuing disparity
between the educational results of Indigenous children compared with non-Indigenous

  • The retention
    rate for Indigenous students is 33 per cent compared to 75 per cent
    for all students.
  • The participation
    rate for non-Indigenous children in years 11 and 12 is more than double
    the Indigenous rate (5.5%)
  • Nearly half of
    Indigenous people aged 15 years and over have received no formal educational
  • The year 10 certificate
    was the highest educational qualification achieved by almost 30 per
    cent of Indigenous people.
  • Only 20% have
    any education beyond year 10 and only one in six Indigenous people had
    obtained a qualification after leaving school.5

Some Aboriginal children,
notably those living in small 'homeland' communities in the Northern Territory
and Queensland, are unable to access schooling of any kind. The Queensland
Teacher's Union, for example, told us

Some isolated communities
with a significant school age population have NO school at all. For
example outstations around Doomadgee have up to 200 school age students
but no school.6

The inquiry also
heard from many people in rural and remote communities who are critical
of the cultural appropriateness and relevance of education for Indigenous
students. Employing Aboriginal teachers and workers in schools is vital
to supporting Indigenous students through the schooling system. And yet
the Inquiry has heard many times of inadequate numbers of Aboriginal teachers
and Aboriginal workers in rural and remote schools.

There is no doubt
that culturally inappropriate or irrelevant education has a major impact
on educational attainment. The Convention on the Rights of the Child,
ratified by Australia, recognises the right of Indigenous and minority
children to access education which ensures their right to enjoy their
culture, profess and practise their religions and use their own languages.

Another serious issue
raised in the inquiry is the lack of support in rural and remote areas
for children with special needs such as a physical or learning disability.
Without adequate special education teaching support in rural and remote
areas, families with children with a disability are forced to travel long
distances to access appropriate education or send their child away or
move the family to an urban centre - or deprive their child of education.
Health services which are vital to the student's participation in education
-speech therapists, counsellors, physiotherapists - are in many cases
completely inaccessible to these children.

Rural education
and health - interdependent human rights

Evidence to the inquiry
on education for children with disabilities and Indigenous children in
rural and remote areas highlights the interdependence of the right to
education and the right to health for all children and young people.

Education affects
the health and well-being of a community. Through access to quality education
young people learn about their own health and acquire the tools to discover
more information to improve their health. Education is the fundamental
first step of preventive health care. Education also is the means to employment
- and we know that as employment is tied to socio-economic status, so
is socio-economic status tied to health.

From the other perspective,
health is also inextricably linked to the ability of children to access
educational opportunities. A child with bad health faces all sorts of
difficulties in attendance and in learning when at school. The health
status of rural Australians and the poor access to basic health services
in the bush make health a major issue for rural education.

Peter Toyne, Shadow
Minister for Education and Training in the Northern Territory, pointed
this out to the inquiry

Really, health
and education are very closely interwoven; if you've got bad health,
it will have a major effect on the ability to achieve educational outcomes.7

It is a particular
issue for indigenous Australians. In Alice Springs we were told

Chronic ear disease,
due to unsatisfactory hygiene and malnutrition, can result in poor hearing
and sometimes deafness. This is a big problem, especially for young
Aboriginal people throughout the Northern Territory. The fact is when
you can't hear at school, it is incredibly boring so you stop going,
and when you don't go to school, you have all day in front of you and
you've got to do something! That's when you get into trouble, sniff
petrol, start stealing things and with the mandatory sentencing you
end up going to jail. All this is because of the insufficient access
to clean water and proper food.8

In remote areas schools
rely heavily on sporadic and diminishing health services. In Billiluna
for example, a small community on the edge of the Tanami Desert, there
are no health or community services. The nearest health worker is in Balgo,
1 ½ hours drive by car over dirt roads impassable for 4 to 5 months
of the rainy season. The nearest community worker is in Halls Creek, accessible
only by air in the wet or by dirt road, taking 3 to 4 hours in the dry.
There are long delays before any service is provided to the young people
of this community. The school nurse based in Halls Creek has responsibility
for the region across to Balgo. She comes once or twice a year to screen
the children. She had only been out to the school once in the year when
we visited in May.* The school should have received a visit from
an education psychologist but she would not come because of a recent child
suicide at Wubin so she had to go there as a priority. This means that
the children cannot see the psychologist. Other community and health specialists
for the region are based in Broome. Most of these agencies have no budget
for travel. For example, there is a teacher of the deaf in Broome. But
this person has no money for travel and no vehicle. The school has been
lobbying to get money for travel expenses so he could travel to Billiluna.

* Correction:
There is a health service at Billiluna consisting of a nurse and a team
of Aboriginal Health Workers. The health service visits the school on
a regular basis. The Commission apologises for any offence this error
may have caused.

One particular health
issue for children raised repeatedly in the inquiry was the problem of
otitis media - or middle ear infections - in Indigenous communities and
the impact this has on children's education.

In Lajamanu in the
Northern Territory the inquiry was told that 80% of the children have
hearing problems. This figure was pretty common in remote communities
we visited. Aboriginal people at meetings in Nguiu, Billiluna, Kununurra
and in North-West NSW raised hearing impairment due to otitis media as
a key problem affecting the education of their children.

Without adequate
teacher training, health programs and special equipment, including sound
proofed rooms and amplification, children with otitis media cannot fully
benefit from the regular school environment. One teacher at the Fitzroy
Crossing Community Meeting told us

Otitis media has
more serious implications for children who have a language background
of Kriol and Walmajarri as their first languages. Given that they are
required to become proficient in English, some of these children hardly
hear any English at all. At the school where I teach, we have only just
got road access to Fitzroy Crossing, and we have just got a TV as of
3 weeks ago. Before that, I was the only English speaker in the community.
Many of the children have otitis media and their English language education
is seriously compromised because of the combination of language factors
and the hearing difficulties. Something like 90% of the kids at my school
have otitis media.9

How can we have high
educational expectations of children when the education we provide is
totally inaccessible to them?

Inquiry outcomes

Today I have taken
you beyond Bush Talks to focus on children's right to education
in rural Australia. Of course, many other issues arose in Bush Talks
which deserve attention by government, including regional unemployment
and access to safe water and other basic services. The Commission has
attempted to be as comprehensive as possible when discussing the findings
of Bush Talks and to continually remind government and others that
the concerns of rural and remote Australia demand an integrated and comprehensive
approach - one in which human rights are the basic bottom line.

We have also selected
a number of areas for special attention - both in our comments to the
government about its responsibilities and in our own small projects.

However, deficiencies
in the provision of education to children in rural and remote areas are
especially serious. The education of children in remote areas has been
remarkably neglected. It must now be made a national priority, an essential
component of policies to address rural decline, provide equal opportunity
and give communities the hope and spirit to survive.

Schools are the cornerstone
of rural communities. As one mother from Wyndham in the Kimberley told

The only thing
that would influence us to leave Wyndham is the schooling system and
that's really sad. The whole community is saying the same thing. We
are all prepared to stay during the primary school years but everyone
is looking at that high school stage and becoming really quite concerned.
When they start moving the town will go right down.10

The National Inquiry
into Rural and Remote Education is a step in holding Australian governments
to account for the performance of their responsibilities to Australian
children. Primarily, the role of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity
Commission in this is to report on Australia's compliance with its human
rights obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child
and other conventions as they apply to education.

We will report to
the federal Attorney-General, who will table the report in parliament,
regarding this inquiry. But the outcomes of the inquiry can go further
than this. The Commission can and will work closely with education stakeholders
across the country. These include schools, unions, state and territory
education departments, independent schools' offices, information technology
providers, ministerial councils and non government organisations.

We also plan to publish
some of the models of good and innovative practice in rural and remote
schools that we have collected and to work on a number of different projects
to target particular problems raised in the inquiry, for example access
to education for Indigenous children.

Human rights law
requires that we must respect the rights of all children to education,
to health and to a safe and happy environment where they can thrive and
grow into strong and happy adults. The challenge to governments, to the
Commission and to the whole community is to make these rights a reality,
not just rhetoric.

The Regional Australia

I mentioned earlier
the Regional Australia Summit in Canberra last October. The Summit was
a most significant event, reflecting the importance at long last being
accorded to the situation of people who live outside the capital cities.
In some senses the title, Regional Australia Summit, caused concern because
it seemed to place its emphasis on large non-metropolitan cities rather
than the more rural and remote areas where the problems people face are
even worse. Indeed, many of the early papers and contributions from participants
reflected this focus. But others at the Summit, particularly the representatives
of organisations active in more remote parts of Australia, strongly and
successfully argued for recognition of the special situations and needs
of these communities.

The concluding statement
of the Summit includes each of the issues I have discussed here today
and many more that go to the present difficulties and future hopes of
country people. Most importantly, it recognises that the futures of these
communities lie in partnerships of the communities themselves, governments,
the private sector and community organisations. It calls for a truly national
commitment to regional, rural and remote Australians.

At the end of the
Summit, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, appointed a committee
of some of the participants to prepare an implementation plan for his
consideration. That committee will conclude its work shortly. It will
then be up to the government to respond. I have no doubt of the Deputy
Prime Minister's commitment to pursue the conclusions of the Summit. Whether
the government generally shares that commitment will be something we find
out in the near future, particularly in the context of the federal budget
to be delivered in May.

Country Australians
look to the whole community to stand with them - not to prop them up or
to increase their dependence but to stand with them. They deserve no less
from the rest of us. I can say without hesitation that the work of our
Human Rights Commission over the last years and what we are still doing
demonstrates our response. We will continue to challenge our fellow Australians
to respond as enthusiastically, in the interest of the human rights of
us all.


, Port Augusta SA, June 1998.
2 Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission: Valuing
rural communities 1998
, p.11
3 HREOC, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice
Report 1994
, page 99.
4 Halls Creek Failure to Thrive Committee, Child Malnutrition
in the Shire of Halls Creek
, January 1999.
5 ATSIC submission to the Rural and Remote Education Inquiry,
page 10.
6 Queensland Teachers' Union submission to Rural and Remote
Education Inquiry, page 1.
7 Peter Toyne, Shadow Minister for Education and Training,
NT Legislative Assembly, Rural and Remote Education Inquiry, Darwin hearings
10 May 1999.
8 Alice Springs Bush Talks, NT October 1998.
9 Fitzroy Crossing Community Meeting 19 May 1999.
10Bush Talks Kununurra, WA 17 May 1999.

updated 1 December 2001

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