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Diversity Week Official Launch (2009)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Diversity Week Official Launch

Graeme Innes AM

University of Wollongong

23 March 2009


Thank you Aunty Barbara for your welcome to country. I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.

I'd also like to acknowledge:

  • Vice-Chancellor, Mr Gerard Sutton
  • Mr David Jesson, Shellharbour City Council
  • Ms Noreen Hay, Member for Wollongong
  • Mr Gerardo De Liseo and Ms Lesley Coombs from the Anti-Discrimination Board
  • Ms Robyn Weekes, former Employment Equity and Diversity Director at the University and Ms Lynne Wright, current EED Director
  • Mr Chris Puplick, former NSW Anti-Discrimination & Privacy Commissioner
  • Ms Nicole Anderson-Brown and Ms Gina Massafra from Vision Australia.

I want to talk today about diversity and human rights in Australia. But first, I'd like to talk about another aspect of the Australian experience.

Australia is known as the lucky country - we have a great climate, generally friendly people, and a pretty easy-going way of life. But it's not always that way. Take our climate for example. Its a great climate, but Australia is the melanoma capital of the world. In NSW alone, more than 3,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma every year.

I'm pretty sure we all remember the 'slip, slop, slap' ad campaign. Sid the seagull, wearing board shorts, t-shirt and a hat, tap-dancing his way across our TV screens, singing a catchy jingle to remind us of three easy ways of protecting against skin cancer. Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat. The campaign is widely credited as playing a key role in the dramatic shift in sun protection attitudes and behaviour over the past two decades in Australia. It's all about taking preventative measures to protect your skin from the sun's harmful rays.

Going back to Australia as the 'lucky country', we can see that our climate, while it is quite nice and sunny, has its dark side - 'the dark side of tanning'. Now, as I said earlier, in Australia, most people are generally quite friendly. They'll greet you with a "g'day" and a "how're ya going mate." But again, it's not always that way - some Australians also have a dark side.

Let me tell you a couple of stories- examples of exactly how unfriendly Australia, or some Australians, can be.

In 2007, the Australian Human Rights Commission completed its Same-Sex: Same Entitlements report on discrimination against people in same-sex relationships. As part of the consultations that we conducted during that Inquiry, gay and lesbian people told the Inquiry about ongoing experiences of homophobia. Some experienced homophobia in the form of verbal abuse. For others, the homophobia included physical abuse and harassment.

take the experiences of a young lesbian at a regional high school:

...when she confided to a friend that she might be a lesbian, the story circulated in the school quickly. After school, in the car park, hostile school students held her still as they drove a car over her feet, all the while yelling verbal harassment. She told me she was too frightened to tell a school authority, to seek medical advice, or speak with the police, for fear of further violence, and of having to tell her parents.

As another example, in 2003, the Commission conducted consultations with Arab and Muslim Australians. Some Arab and Muslim Australian students reported incidents where they felt that teachers and staff condoned racist behaviour, or were directly discriminatory. As one student told us:

I've been in class, and other students have said, in front of the teacher, 'Why do you have a towel on your head?' or 'The Muslims are coming to bomb us' and 'All Muslims are terrorists'. But the teacher said nothing.

People also described incidents of discrimination and abuse, which took place at college or university.

Women and girls have had their hijab taken off, and been spat at, and physically abused by other non-Muslim students at university. This to them is the equivalent of feeling raped.

These people don't have an easy-going way of life. They are subjected to discrimination on a daily basis.

These examples of discrimination are preventable, by focusing on responsibilities, rights and respect. Which brings me back to the reason I'm here today - to launch Diversity Week here at the University. This is an important event, which celebrates the rich diversity within the University community, and promotes the inclusion of all staff and students at Wollongong.

I'm also here to launch the University's new online program for students, entitled 'Responsibilities, Rights and Respect Online'. While responsibility, rights and respect, might not have the same ring as 'slip, slop, slap', the idea and motivation behind both slogans is the same.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that our learning environment is accessible to all, without fear of harassment or intimidation. We all need to respect the rights and opinions of others. This is about building a human rights culture within Australia. An Australia where we can genuinely say we're the lucky country. An Australia where everyone is friendly, inclusive, and respectful of others. An Australia where everyone has rights. And an Australia where everyone can enjoy those rights - no matter where, or who, they are.

Like sunscreen, we need this human rights culture to sink in. It needs to permeate every layer of society - at home, at schools, universities, in the workplace and in the streets. We need to maintain constant awareness, and reapply the principles of freedom, respect, equality and dignity.

The 'slip slop slap' motto wouldn't work if you slipped on a shirt, slopped on some sunscreen and slapped on a hat just one time, out of all the times you were in the sun! You need to make sure that every time you're out in the sun, you slip, slop and slap. Likewise, we need to make sure we respect the rights of everyone, everywhere, every day.

At the Australian Human Rights Commission, we think that Australia needs a national human rights law, or a Human Rights Act. This law will help to make sure that human rights are respected more broadly in Australia. It will encourage human rights to sink in to our every day way of life. This is what we are going to tell the federal government's National Human Rights Consultation: that human rights matter to all Australians, everyone, everywhere, everyday. That we can do a better job of protecting them. That we need a national Human Rights Act.

I encourage all of you to get involved, and tell the national consultation - happening right now - what you think about how human rights should be protected. Make a submission, go to a consultation, ensure your voice is heard. Find out more at www.humanrights.gov.au/letstalkaboutrights.

I look forward to the day that triple R - responsibilities, rights and respect - will one day be as well understood in Australian society as the sun safety tagline - slip, slop slap. I'm therefore very happy to launch the week, and this product.

Thank you for the chance to speak with you today.

Graeme Innes AM, Disability Discrimination Commissioner

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