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Cessnock Shire Council - Australia Day Ambassador address (2009)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Australia Day Ambassador address
Cessnock Shire
Council

Graeme Innes AM

26 January 2009


I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today.

Thanks for the chance to be your Australia day ambassador. Maureen and I are
really pleased to be here for a number of reasons:

First, it's great to celebrate our national day with such a large, diverse
and - as we've seen - talented group of Australians. And may I particularly
congratulate those who've chosen to join us as Australians today.

Second, many of my relatives, on my mother's side, lived in the Hunter
valley, and my wife Maureen was born in Arcadia Vale, so it's a bit like coming
home.

And third, it's great to spend a warm and sunny long weekend in one of
Australia's premier wine-growing districts. I've felt obliged to check that the
wine is still up to quality, and the sampling has been most enjoyable. We also
enjoyed the Hunter valley gardens, and some of the tourist features of the
region. And we told our daughter the story of pit ponies, so eloquently told in
Trish Gillespie’s song.

I think it's important on Australia day that we ask ourselves what sort of
Australia we want to live in. I'm quite sure most of you, like me, would say you
want to live in a society where respect for the individual is recognised as
precious. Where everyone is valued, whether they are male or female, young or
old, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, whatever their faith, whether or
not they have a disability - everyone.

As Australians, there is much of which we can be proud. We have a robust
democracy, and an independent legal system. There are low levels of official
corruption. Most of our communities are safe, and most Australians have access
to health care. But we still have some way to go.

Australian law doesn't always protect our human rights, and Australian law
makers can abolish most of the rights we have. Innocent people, including
children, are unjustly detained. We have deported our own citizens. Our own
government has discriminated against our fellow Australians on the basis of race
and sexual orientation. When the rights of any person in Australia are denied,
we are all diminished.

Neither Australian law-makers, nor those who make decisions under Australian
laws, are sufficiently conscious of people's rights. In the last two years,
law-makers restricted our freedom of speech during APEC and World Youth Day.
Until late last year, whether people received government financial benefits
depended on their sexual orientation. In the last five years, public
decision-makers deported Australian citizens Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon. And
just last week, a court over-turned the decision of government officials to take
two children from their parents.

We need a cultural change in Australia. Law-makers, decision-makers, and in
fact all of us, should be more conscious of our human rights, and know how to
assert them when threatened. And that's why I believe we need a human rights
Act for Australia.

A human rights Act will improve democracy in Australia. It will make
government decision making more transparent and accountable. It will not
undermine the power of our Parliament to make and change laws. Rather, it will
require Parliament to consider human rights standards when making laws, and to
justify any decision to depart from those standards.

Like most people, I want to live in an Australia of which I can be uniformly
proud. Where freedom, equality and dignity matter. Where human rights matter.
We will have this kind of society if the people who make our laws respect human
rights, if people who make decisions under those laws respect human rights, and
if we all, as members of the Australian community, respect human rights, and
live by them. Human rights should be for everyone, everywhere, every day.

So, let's start to talk about rights. We should all understand that, without
improving human rights protection in Australia, each and every one of us has the
potential to be discriminated against, unjustly detained, or told what we can
and cannot say.

The federal government's national consultation on human rights protection is
our opportunity to talk about our rights. To talk about options that would
ensure those rights are better protected. To continue to build a fair,
inclusive, tolerant and secure society. One where human rights matter. Father
Frank Brennan, and his consultation panel, want to hear your views. You can
find out more at www.humanrights.gov.au.

My Australia day challenge is to make 2009 the year in which we commit
ourselves to join all other western democracies, and place freedom, dignity and
equality at the centre of Australian life.

But, as I said at the beginning of this speech, there are many things about
Australia which make me very proud. We do have a robust democracy. Remember
that the only real rebellion against authority was the rum rebellion- typically
Australian- it related to alcohol, the government was over-thrown without anyone
being hurt, and there was a big party afterwards. And we have a real sense of
fun in our approach to life- I've been an Australia day ambassador in shires
where the day is celebrated with yabbie racing in the backyard of the local pub,
and by a gnome convention. We value our national day, but don't see why this
should stop us enjoying it.

So, thanks for the chance to enjoy your celebrations with you, and speak with
you today. Our Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi brought back memories for me of
the Sydney Olympics and Paralympics, one of the many times I've been proud to be
an Australian.

Happy Australia day.

 

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