‘Free and Equal: An Australian Conversation on Human Rights’
8 October 2019
Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM
President, Australian Human Rights Commission
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Your Excellency, Dr Michele Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Australian Human Rights Commission Commissioners—Dr Ben Gauntlett, Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, and National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell; former Commission President, the Hon Catherine Branson AC QC, former Age Discrimination Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner, the Hon Susan Ryan AO and former Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Dodson AM; Les Malzezer, Member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; the Hon Roslyn Atkinson AO, Royal Commissioner into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability; the Hon Janine Freeman, Member for Mirrabooka in the Western Australian Parliament; esteemed panellists and their moderators; colleagues; friends.
Thank you Uncle Chikka Madden for that powerful welcome to country. Uncle Chikka knows just how to the tone in his welcomes in Gadigal country!
I too acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People sharing this wonderful day with us today.
The acknowledgment of emerging leaders is especially important in the context as our whole conference is about the future, and I am delighted that we are opening this morning with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander panel chaired by the brilliant Brooke Boney, a fine example of emerging leaders—connecting our past and our future.
On behalf of the Australian Human Rights Commission, may I welcome each and every one of you to our ‘Free and Equal’ Conference on Human Rights, joining us in what I know will be a very engaging, challenging, and uplifting day. It is a great privilege—and responsibility—for me to lead such an important agenda and conversation during my term as President of Australia’s national human rights institution.
Today we have the immense honour of being joined by Her Excellency, Dr Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Dr Bachelet first came to Australia in 1975 as one of the first political refugees this country received. When we went to visit her in Geneva in March, we appealed to her memories of her time in Australia in inviting her to join us here today. One of the many honours that Dr Bachelet has received is the honorary award of Companion of the Order of Australia, AC, which she was given just over seven years ago, on 5 October 2012, ‘for outstanding global leadership in promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women as the Executive Director of UN Women and for her eminent service to developing Australia-Chile bilateral relations’.
The High Commissioner is in Australia for a four-day program of events focused on our national conversation on human rights.
It is a particular mark of respect for us, for Her Excellency to come at the invitation of a national human rights institution. We are deeply honoured, Dr Bachelet, that you have entrusted us with her visit.
The significance of both our roles has a shared history. The creation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the affirmation of the contributions of independent national human rights institutions—like the Commission—were two of the major outcomes from the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. And, for example, in the past weeks, we have twice appeared on the world stage, as Australia’s national human rights institution, before the Committee for the Rights of the Child and the Committee for the Rights of Persons with Disability.
At our human rights awards last December, after a year of marking the 70 th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I announced that we would be undertaking a ‘national conversation’ on human rights, invoking the first article of the Universal Declaration—that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’. This Conference today is a highlight of this.
The Conference—and the conversation as a whole—were born out of a desire to bring people together, to re-imagine our national system for protecting human rights.
We are asking big questions:
‘What do we want the future of Australia to look like?’
‘What matters to everyday Australians?’
‘What legacy do we want to leave our children, and our children’s children?’
The intention of this national conversation is to rise above the politics of the moment and to look to the future.
As I speak this morning, a baby is being born somewhere in this great country of ours. Let us pause for thought and ask what we need to do to ensure that this child has the best opportunity they can have to thrive, to achieve and fully enjoy their human rights? A child’s future should not be determined by whether they are born in a rural or urban community, or depending on their gender, race or some other characteristic.
It is time we talked about human rights in a forward, future-building way—where the focus is aspirational and positively focused—on how we build our communities and how they cohere in our society.
The debates that have dominated the human rights space over recent years have been largely unproductive, pitting different sectors of society against each other and dividing the community, usually resulting in a stalemate.
And we seem to have lost the art of having a debate that is respectful and tolerant of the expression of views that are different. Difference is a strength, not a weakness; something to be embraced and understood.
We need to step back and look at the landscape as a whole. Not focusing solely on details, but looking at the overall picture. Asking and celebrating what we are doing well in terms of human rights protections—and being frank and genuine in acknowledging where we are not, and where we can do better.
Without this bigger conversation, how can we approach things from a place of shared understanding and goodwill?
We do have a strong sense of rights and freedoms in Australia, but we do not have a commonly understood, let alone embedded, framework to help us grapple with the challenges that confront us.
We may disagree on the answer to such challenges, but we need at least to have the conversation about how we are going to get there. Where we can draw on all that we have in common, while acknowledging, indeed celebrating, those things that make us different.
And on this I think there will be much room for agreement.
In our national conversation we are invoking a commonly used framework, of respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights, to show the different types of actions needed to realise human rights across the country.
Specific areas of focus concern changes to our discrimination law framework and ways to achieve a positive framing of rights. And while laws are incredibly important, they are only one type of action needed to ensure human rights are realised. The respect, protect, fulfil framework allows us to see that multiple actions, across multiple areas are required to make progress.
While we are looking at the whole suite of federal discrimination laws, a particular topic of the moment concerns enforceable protections against religious discrimination for all people in Australia. Prohibiting discrimination on the ground of religious belief or activity is consistent with the tolerant, pluralistic nature of Australian society. The Commission itself has been a long-time advocate for such protections. But the draft Bill now under consideration needs changes to make sure everyone’s rights are protected. Religious freedom must not come at the expense of others’ rights—including to the right to protection from discrimination.
The lens of human rights principles and tools helps to resolve such apparent conflicts. After all, apart from a few—like the right to life, freedom from torture and freedom from slavery—human rights are not absolute, immutable propositions.
There are checks and balances that exist with most human rights and freedoms. There are strict criteria for when you can limit rights. There is guidance on how you balance rights when they conflict. And there are expectations of what governments are obliged to do to make the realisation of rights possible.
Above all, human rights require transparency and accountability from government. This is a human rights-based approach.
But the use of human rights principles does not usurp the role of government. Quite to the contrary—these principles can inform and enrich the debates of our politicians. They ensure that the human impact of decision making is at the front of mind: squarely understood and explained.
Some people may regard human rights standards and principles as somehow ‘outside’ impositions—by an amorphous and foreign ‘United Nations’, at odds with state sovereignty.
To which I would respond—
Is compassion, ‘foreign’?
Is respect and dignity, ‘foreign’?
Is the aspiration for everyone to be given a fair go a stranger to our values?
Are any of these things ‘foreign’?
Are not the values that underpin human rights principles already central to our own sense of values in this country? As Australians.
So how do we help people to realise that they are already talking in human rights language?
As the outcome of this conversation our aspirations for the future are—
· that people understand human rights and freedoms as theirs and take action to protect them (for themselves and for others)
· that communities are resilient and alert to human rights breaches, supported by robust institutions
· that law and policy makers explicitly consider human rights in their decision-making and see the protection of human rights as core business in exercising their functions
· that government and the community work together—understanding the respective role of each other and contributing to a shared ambition for the best possible realisation of human rights and freedoms.
Through the national conversation help us to find ways to achieve these outcomes—so that human rights thinking is part of everyday speaking and decision-making and not somehow factored in as an afterthought.
We’ve set out the Commission’s initial thinking on some key areas in a series of discussion papers available on our website. But this is a conversation and we want to hear from you.
We look forward to engaging with you. To agreeing and disagreeing with you about these priorities—that is the essence of good and constructive conversation.
And in the middle of next year, we will release a roadmap for human rights reform for the next decade.
Today, together with Dr Bachelet, we are joined by speakers from around Australia coming from very different backgrounds and experiences.
You will hear about grassroots movements to hear the voices of rural communities in Parliament; perspectives from the boardroom to the classroom; the role of the arts, media and sporting sectors; and the stories of individuals who are leading change in their own communities.
A common theme among them is that most speakers you will hear from today don’t necessarily identify themselves as human rights champions. Indeed, a few queried why we had asked them to speak at this conference in the first place!
So I hope that this will lead to an important understanding from today’s discussions—that human rights are about the everyday issues and concerns of Australians all over the nation. They are, as Eleanor Roosevelt famously described them, things that occur ‘in small places’.
And the wonderful consequence of this? That they are owned by everyone. That anyone can influence them and positively protect them.
As our world changes and we face ever more complex challenges, everyone has a role to play—we can all do more, and we can also do it together.
Now is the time to have hard conversations to bring focus and shared purpose back to the human rights agenda.
Now is the time to expand those conversations out beyond those who consider themselves ‘experts’, to realise that conversations about human rights are already happening all around us even when they aren’t labelled as such.
And at this time we need to focus—to listen to what people want, find the things that are indeed common goals and apply pressure together.
As Dr Bachelet said recently at the 42nd session of the Human Rights Council,
‘with sufficient determination, acting in partnership, we can take steps to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms—and in doing so, we will strengthen our societies, and build a better future for us all’.
All over Australia there are babies being born today. Indeed, adding to this, my fifth grandchild is due in January next year—a boy, already called Noah. Now is the time to think about the future for these, our children and our children’s children.
I am delighted that you are all joining me here today, at what I know is just the beginning of a far bigger conversation.