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Rights and Freedoms

"Values of Contemporary Australian Society and their
Impact on the Preservation and Defence of Human Rights and Social Justice

by Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM, Human Rights Commissioner at the DIALOGUE AUSTRALASIA
NETWORK NATIONAL CONFERENCE, Values Education - Relevance and Rigour,
Newington College, April 13-15 2005


I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand and pay my respects to their elders both past and present.


I would like to open today by reading you part of an e-mail that a work colleague of mine received recently from a young Australian woman in her early twenties, who recently completed her Bachelor of Communications degree from UTS in Sydney. As it happens she also holds Polish citizenship and is currently visiting her grandparents in Warsaw.

"But this whole death of the Pope thing is phenomenal. I never really understood it; it was like the Pope is the father that was never around and now that I'm in contact with him again in adulthood I KNOW he's my father and I KNOW how I SHOULD feel towards him, but just...well...don't. But the emotion here is really contagious. Absolutely EVERYTHING is closed until the funeral, and all the television channels are either still doing commemorative broadcasts or have ceased transmission and just display some sort of announcement that, as a mark of respect they have stopped transmission. Polish and papal flags have been hung out on every post, wall and window with black ribbons of mourning.

The old town square yesterday was just filled with people, and there were spontaneous Masses in all of the churches. The atmosphere was not entirely sombre, but not joyous either (although ice cream stalls and kebab kiosks must have been making a killing). I guess the mood was one of communal sympathy, of bonding; of peace, even. Really, really beautiful.

I couldn't imagine the entire nation just spontaneously outpouring grief and thanks like that in Australia. People don't seem as, well, as capable of passion over there. I mean, the closest we've had was the death of the Don (Bradman) And the only thing that comes close to stopping the nation is Melbourne Cup. So being here is something really, really touching, and I feel humbled to be able to be part of it."

This quite remarkable piece of writing was part of an otherwise gossipy, casual e-mail. The young lady in question had not put any particular effort into that paragraph, it seems it just flowed out that way.

I felt it was an excellent introduction to my address today, in which I want to focus briefly on young people in Australia and their values and what that tells us about their attitudes to the preservation and defence of human rights.

Baby Boomer"s Rules

Arguably for people of my generation, and I"m speaking loosely here of those born before 1960, "values" as a concept was a lot easier to deal with because it was smaller and simpler.

There were fewer options or points of reference, as the institutions of family and organised religion were the primary vehicles for inculcating "values".

The childhood model was generally pretty well defined:

  • The family, school and church were key influences;
  • The "rules" were pretty inelastic and breaches were "punishable";
  • Cultural homogeneity was more the norm.

Equally hypocrisy was widespread, along the old saying: "Don"t do as I do, do as I say".

Or as Janusz Korczak, a Polish educator and writer, who turned down opportunities to escape the Warsaw Ghetto and so died with 200 of his "orphanage" children, in the Treblinka Nazi death camp once wrote:

We want our children to be better than us. We dream about a perfect person of the future. We talked to ourselves, we forgave ourselves, we excused ourselves and explained: we don't need to improve ourselves. We were not brought up properly. It's too late. The bad things are already too big. We don't allow children to criticize and we don't control ourselves. We gave up, we don't fight our weaknesses, but we ask children to do it.

The contradiction is quite clear - our failings as the result of our upbringing are unchangeable, but we want something better for the youth of today.

But if we do not continue to "improve ourselves" can we hope for a better result for the new generation?

If our generation, as teachers, parents, politicians - and even the general public, are not prepared to lead by example, can we really expect to see this "brave new world" of tolerant, morally strong and enlightened future leaders?

It is evident that much of what a child knows and keeps for the rest of his or her life is learnt at quite a young age.

Another old saying springs to mind "Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man" or, of course, the woman.

(Some of you may recognise this quote, popularised by the documentary series 7-Up, which charted the development of children in the UK through into adulthood.) Also variously attributed to the Jesuits.

There are, of course, numerous examples of individuals who have overcome difficulties faced in their early years to become successful people, worthy of being considered outstanding role models for the youth of today.

Nevertheless, there are clear indications to suggest that a positive growing environment in a child"s first five years of life can greatly increase that child"s chance of becoming a "success" in the broadest sense: socially, morally, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

National Agenda for Early Childhood

As most of you will be aware, this philosophy is guiding the federal government"s present efforts to develop a National Agenda for Early Childhood. The stated goals in a draft version of this agenda are that children:

  • have opportunities to reach their full physical, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual potential
  • develop a positive sense of self and culture, the skills for lifelong learning and the capacity for living a life that is fulfilled and fully engaged in society
  • are safe and enjoy a childhood free from all forms of abuse and exploitation
  • receive, along with their families and other primary carers, quality supports and services to promote all aspects of child development in a way that responds to diversity of need, culture and location.

It is hard to imagine that anyone would disagree with these sentiments. It is also difficult to guess how long it will take before these ideals are made real, for this indeed sounds like the environment that Korczak"s "perfect person of the future" will grow up in.

In the meantime, perhaps we have a responsibility to conduct ourselves as individuals in such a way that the government"s positive agenda can become the norm.

So, apart from our own willingness and capacity to lead by example if we want to give our children every chance of success, what other obstacles exist?

Perhaps this quote, by a young person in NSW on the topic of school issues, gives a clue: "I like my teacher "cause he listens to what you have to say, he lets you explain."

Current trends for Young People

Listening - young people appreciate it when people older than themselves actively listen. It sounds simple, unless you appreciate there can be difficulty in understanding both the message and its means of communication if, like me, you were not born with a mouse in one hand and a mobile phone in the other.

It is perhaps ironic that the speeding up of information and the narrowing of social and technological distance we know as "globalisation" can also be a barrier to communicating with our youth.

As a member of the "technophobic" generation, I am proud to say that I can send and receive emails, program the diary in my Palm Pilot, and use a number of the programs that were installed on my computer at work by someone else.

These are things which I have had to negotiate as they came into being.

However, for the majority of school age children today, these technologies pre-existed their arrival.

In those influential early years they learned to engage with technologies such as the internet and SMS as a natural extension of themselves, in a degree of detail I feel I could only dream of acquiring.

In a recent speech in 2004, social researcher Hugh Mackay described young people in the 21st century as being intensely "tribal" and loyal to their social group.

They increasingly rely on each other, as opposed to adults, for support and information, creating "surrogate families" from their peers, perhaps in response to the changing structure of the family unit.

Their support network is vast and only a text message away.

This climate presents an additional problem of access to their world, of how to teach "values", when the opinions they value most are from each other.

Implicit in the "do as I say not as I do" model of learning values is that children should not only assume the viability of the teaching, but that they should imagine the pitfalls that may await them should they choose not to follow the advice.
Perhaps it is we, however, who should imagine what it is like to be a young person today, to appreciate what concerns them on a day to day basis

Or - simply ask them, an approach which is so justly supported by our friends at the NSW Commission for Children and Young People.

Young People and Human Rights Dialogue

I am currently conducting research for HREOC into the knowledge and attitudes young people have on a range of human rights issues.

By running focus groups in schools and youth centres around the country, in conjunction with a national survey, I hope to find out how young people today are able to negotiate the wealth of information provided to them, and the impact that has on the formation of their values.

This idea was partly prompted by the success of the Commission's formal education strategy which is aimed at teachers and school students and is conducted by way of workshops and online web materials and activities.

The human rights education materials are developed in conjunction with experienced curriculum developers to provide teachers with a range of teaching materials which are linked to the curricula of each state and territory education system.

HREOC"s Secular Values Teacher"s Module

I would just like for a moment to give you some information about the Commissions human rights education programs for schools.

I have with me some folders which you are very welcome to take away with you - there are also forms which show you how to subscribe to the Commissions" Information for Teachers electronic mailing list where you will get access to up to date human rights education teaching materials.

Over 5,000 teachers already subscribe to this mailing list.

Since 1998 the Commission has provided a comprehensive range of these human rights education resources. They are delivered direct to Teachers all over Australia via the Commission"s website.

Each of the resources are linked to a range of key learning areas which allow teachers to address human rights issues effectively within an already crowded curriculum.

Contemporary literacy teaching strategies have been incorporated into the resources to ensure that teachers and students achieve learning outcomes not only in human rights but also in subjects such as English, Studies of Society and Environment, History and Personnel Development.

Teaching strategies, activities and links to useful resources are all supplied as part of the resources.

The human rights education modules which you will find on the Information for Teachers webpage include:

  • Youth Challenge which
    has four parts:

    • Unit 1: Human Rights in the Classroom.
    • Unit 2: Doug and Disability
    • Unit 3: Young People in the Workplace.
    • Unit 4: Tackling Sexual Harassment
      in Your School
    • Also available on a free of charge CD rom. The kit also includes three
      videos which form part of the Youth Challenge program.

  • Bringing Them Home Education
    - Learning
    about the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children
    from their families.

    • This is also available on a free of charge CD
      Rom- over 10,000 CD-Roms have been disseminated to schools and teacher
      organisations across Australia.

  • Face the Facts - Questions and Answers about
    Refugees, Migrants and Indigenous People Teaching Notes.

    • Currently being updated to coincide
      with the updated version of the Face the Facts Publication
      which will be released later this year

  • A last resort?: Learning about the National Inquiry
    into Children in Immigration Detention.

    • Available as a CD and Community Guide.

  • Isma- - Listen: National Consultations on eliminating
    prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians.

    • Available on an audio

These human rights education resources are very popular and during the last year a total of 630,000 page views were accessed. The HREOC website itself recorded 5.4 million page views during this period which equates 49 million hits.

Teaching from the book: "A last resort?"

From my own perspective as the Commissioner responsible for conducting the Children in Immigration Detention Inquiry, I consider the report titled "A last resort?" performed an extremely valuable educative role. I believe it is fair to say that the conduct of, and the publicity around, the Inquiry, substantially contributed to the gradual change in community attitudes to the issue of children in immigration detention.

This was especially the case amongst the many groups of young people, both in the school setting and outside, that I addressed on this subject.

For instance, the report included many case studies; one of those in the chapter on mental health was in fact about the Yousefi family.

As they have chosen to publicly identify themselves and permit in-depth media coverage of their situation, with the most recent being an excellent article by Elizabeth Colman, in The Australian of 27 September 2004, I have chosen their case today. As you listen to my account of the facts, I believe it will give you a better understanding of why these stories can be educative, especially for young Australians.

The Yousefi Family Case-Study

This family consists of a father (Parvis), mother (Mehrnoosh), and a son (Manucheher) who was born on 17 July 1990.

20 April 2001

Family arrive at Ashmore Islands. Transferred to Woomera.

August 2001

Mother and son accommodated in the Woomera RHP.

May 2002

FAYS are notified regarding this family after the father attempted to hang himself twice and the son threatened to self-harm. The assessment notes that the son was:
"exhibiting clear signs of severe stress: his sleep-talking, nightmares and now sleep-walking indicate deep-seated trauma. The current stressors of detention and his parents' depression are clearly causing [the child] extreme distress ... his mental health will only deteriorate further without sensitive and effective long-term intervention".

ACM psychiatric nurse notes that the boy's: 'mental health and behaviours have deteriorated since his father has been depressed and suicidal. He has attempted to assume the role of head of the household in his father's absence'.

There then ensued approximately 20 recommendations from mental health professionals saying that he should be released from detention with his family. Some said that removal from detention was a matter of urgency.

For instance, in February 2003 a psychiatrist examining the boy wrote the following: "When I asked if there was anything I could do to help him, he told me that I could bring a razor or knife so that he could cut himself more effectively than with the plastic knives that are available."

Finally, this child, with his family, were removed, into the Adelaide community, in mid-June 2004, after they won a Refugee Review Tribunal case and were declared to be refugees.

But as was revealed in Elizabeth Colman"s article, the family"s mental health is terrible; Parvis has now created his own little prison in a rented apartment in Adelaide, where he daily takes, 5mg of the anti-psychotic Olanzapine, 20mg of the anti-obsessional Fluoxetine and up to three tablets daily of the tranquiliser Diazapam. The 13 year old son, now 13, takes a daily anti-psychotic, Neulactil.

What Has the Young People & HR Dialogue told us about their knowledge of secular values?

By accessing material such as this via HREOC"s online teaching module I believe young people are absorbing information about human rights values.

So what have we found so far as we talk to young people in 2005?

So far, though we have only spoken to young people in two schools, we have already had some fascinating feedback. Though it"s too early to talk about trends, it is clear that youth - and I"m talking mostly about those in the 14 to 17 year old age group - have very strong opinions on a range of challenging rights-related topics, such as racism, bullying, terrorism, Indigenous issues and civil liberties.

Far from feeling overawed by the idea of human rights they enjoy airing their opinions, they are informed and confident.

But what you do notice is that there are some contradictory views held by people in this age group.

For example, one young man we talked to the other day said he had written to the Prime Minister about a policy he disagreed with, yet agreed with his friends that it probably wouldn"t be read or taken seriously. It was understood to be a purely symbolic gesture of no practical worth whatsoever.

Another contradiction seems to be that although they believe in the idea of voting, they are not overly-interested in the act of voting, largely espousing the idea that there is little between the two major parties with no serious political alternatives, or as one of our respondents succinctly put it: "They"re all the same anyway".

Though this is of course a generalisation, it is one that seems to be supported by other research.

The National Youth Affairs Research Scheme, who produced a report last year on Youth and Citizenship, conducted surveys and interviews with over 700 young people, most of whom were aged 14 to 15. The report"s authors concluded that although young people want to influence policy and government, they were highly pessimistic about the ability of any citizens, but especially young people, to really effect change through participation.

In addition to assisting youth in forming their own values, then we have an equally important responsibility to encourage a positive outlook: though Australia is not without social problems, it is a robust democracy where civil engagement can effect change on many levels.

If this is something we believe, it is something we should encourage them to believe also.

As a father of three, I know that young people today become critical thinkers very early on by necessity, negotiating a plethora of contradictory points of view they encounter online and in other media.

In terms of teaching values we need to be as familiar with their environment as they are if we are to suggest pathways through the information.

Despite the fact they are not provided with a cut-and-dried model of values and behaviours as I was, they are not shy in making up their own minds about what is important to themselves and their peers. It is clear we have further consultation to do with our youth.

There is an opportunity for us to learn from them as they learn from us:

  • "Dialogue" as opposed to "instruction";
  • What is important to them;
  • What are their hopes and fears;
  • What is their vision of the Australia they would like to inherit?

If we don"t ask them, we cannot help them achieve it.


Overall I am excited about what I have found so far from talking with these young people.

They do have a good grasp of secular values and human rights and they are putting them into practice in their everyday lives.