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Futures: Victorian Rural Health Forum: Chris Sidoti (1999)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Futures: Victorian Rural
Health Forum

Opening address by Chris Sidoti,
Human Rights Commissioner, Country AIDS Network (Victoria), Bendigo, 2-5
June 1999

I am pleased to be
participating in the opening of the Futures Victorian Rural Health
Forum
. I would also like to thank Neil Roxburgh and the Country AIDS
Network (CAN) for inviting me to speak.

I am very happy to
be back in Bendigo. I visited here in November last year as part of the
Commission's Bush Talks consultations, a series of community consultations
with people in regional, rural and remote Australia on human rights in
the bush. At that time I was impressed by the level of community activity
in Bendigo and the enthusiasm of those working, especially in youth services,
to improve the lives of people in rural communities. Community action
at the local level makes an enormous difference to solving the problems
facing rural communities today, especially those most disadvantaged and
isolated.

Statewide rural organisations
such as CAN are vital to linking communities together and providing a
voice for people who are isolated both geographically and socially. Not
only do networks like CAN provide resources for individuals and community
workers, but they raise the profile of non-government organisations and
help to put issues which have been ignored on the political agenda. I
think you can see the results of these alliances across the rural sector
in the work of organisations like CAN and, nationally, the National Rural
Health Alliance.

Health, HIV/AIDS
and human rights

Issues affecting
the health of people living with HIV/AIDS and other blood borne diseases
are human rights issues. That's my principal concern and my responsibility
under Australian law.

The right to an adequate
standard of health is recognised in the International Covenant on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights
, and in the Convention on the Rights
of the Child
, both signed and ratified by Australia. The Declaration
on the Rights of Disabled Persons also specifies the rights of disabled
persons to health care.

The International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
and the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
oblige governments to respect
and ensure that people can exercise their rights without discrimination
of any kind, including on the grounds of disability or sexual orientation.

Some of these international
obligations are expressed in Australian legislation. These Acts give the
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission the power to investigate
individual complaints of discrimination.

Disability Discrimination
Act

Of these Acts, the
Disability Discrimination Act 1992 is the most significant piece
of domestic legislation relevant to people with HIV/AIDS.

The strength of the
Act lies in its comprehensive coverage. Although the Act does not refer
to HIV/AIDS specifically any more than it refers to other conditions of
diseases specifically, the legislation covers comprehensively discrimination
against people who are HIV positive, people with AIDS, Hep. C or other
blood borne diseases.

It also covers disability
which 'may exist in the future; or is imputed to a person'. This clearly
covers many possible types of diseases which are blood borne, and targets
discriminatory presumption that people with certain lifestyles have the
AIDS virus.

The definition of
discrimination in the Act also includes discrimination on the basis that
a person is an associate of a person with a disability. This is particularly
important in the case of HIV and AIDS where ignorance of the disease can
lead to discrimination against carers who give so much of their support
and energy to people with HIV and AIDS.

It is unlawful to
discriminate against a person on the grounds of disability in employment
and in the provision of goods and services or facilities.

Not all differences
in treatment are discriminatory under the Act. It does not require that
anyone be given a job which they cannot do: that is, if they cannot perform
the 'inherent requirements of the job'. A person may be able to perform
the inherent requirements of the job so long as some adjustments or accommodations
are made, for example in job design or equipment. Employers need to review
any job requirements which restrict the equal opportunity for people with
a disability, including HIV or AIDS, to make sure these requirements are
really necessary.

In some cases, ensuring
equal treatment may require adjustment or accommodation by other people,
such as employers or educational authorities. The Act does not require
accommodation of special needs of people with a disability where this
would impose a justifiable hardship on any person.

The Disability Discrimination
Act also specifies that measures reasonably necessary to protect public
health do not constitute unlawful discrimination. But this is not a 'licence
to discriminate'.

It is unlawful to
ask for information regarding a person's HIV/AIDS status for discriminatory
purposes. In general employers should not require an HIV test or ask questions
regarding HIV status. However, questions regarding HIV status are not
unlawful if they are for a non-discriminatory purpose, for example a doctor
may ask for this information to ensure that appropriate treatment is given.

Complaints under
the Act

The Commission receives
a large number of complaints about disability discrimination. In 1997-98,
complaints under the Act formed the largest number of complaints to the
Commission, although there was a 14 per cent decrease in complaints since
the previous year.1

A few complaints
of discrimination under the Act have been on the grounds of HIV/AIDS status.

The best known and
the most widely litigated is the case of X v Department of Defence.
This case illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of the legal
response to discrimination. An HIV positive soldier complained to the
Commission that he had been unfairly discharged from the Australian Defence
Forces due to his HIV status. The Commissioner found that he was dismissed
unlawfully as he was able to fulfil the inherent requirements of his job,
a signaller in the Reserve. In 1998 the Full Court of the Federal Court
found contrary to the Commission that it is not unlawful to discharge
an army recruit with HIV because it is an inherent requirement of military
service that every soldier be able to be deployed in any combat or combat
related role and that a soldier's bleeding not endanger other comrades.
However, the High Court has granted the soldier leave to appeal against
this Federal Court decision. Defence Force cases in particular highlight
the complexity of dealing with discrimination on the grounds of HIV/AIDS.
Although the Commission took a different position than the ADF in this
case, we acknowledge that it is not easy to weigh up competing considerations.

A case with a more
positive result is the Victorian complaint brought by Matthew Hall against
the Victorian Amateur Football League (VAFA) to the Victorian Equal Opportunity
Commission for refusing him permission to play in an amateur football
competition because of his HIV Positive status. Although Mr Hall won the
discrimination case, he is now seeking an assurance that VAFA will undertake
HIV awareness training as he wishes to ensure that other people with HIV
will be able to play the game.

Clearly there is
still a great deal of anxiety and fear about HIV/AIDS in the community.
The parameters of what constitutes discrimination against people with
HIV/AIDS are still being tested, even many years after the epidemic. Education
is the key to alleviating the unnecessary fears of employer and other
organisations, so that people with HIV/AIDS can continue to lead lives
free from discrimination.

Discrimination on
the grounds of sexual orientation

HIV/AIDS is not an
issue confined exclusively to the gay community. However, many people
affected by the virus are gay and as such our responses to the virus require
us to consider issues of discrimination and prejudice against people who
do not conform to society's accepted norms of sexuality. Indeed, AIDS
organisations and sexual health workers are among the most important sources
of information, advice and support for young people struggling with their
sexual orientation, especially in country areas. Issues of sexual orientation,
therefore, are also issues of human rights and health.

The situation of
young lesbian, gay and bisexual people in rural Australia is currently
a major focus in the work of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
These young people face serious difficulties and hardship in many areas.
That hardship includes discrimination, violence, family conflict, lack
of privacy, lack of support and in some cases mental illness and suicide.
They experience all of the problems that confront young people living
in non-metropolitan areas, with an added layer of pressures associated
with their sexual orientation. In my work in rural communities I hear
constantly of young gay men, lesbians and bisexuals whose self-esteem
has been undermined and who feel the future holds nothing for them. The
alarming figures on suicide of these young people attest to this. A study
published last year found that suicide attempt rates in a sample of gay
youth were approximately four times greater than the heterosexual sample.2
In 1998 the "Working it Out" Committee in Tasmania published a report
on sexual minority youth in the north west region of that state. That
project highlighted the strong link between sexuality and various risk
factors including substance abuse, suicide and other self-harming behaviour.
These were just several of numerous studies in different parts of the
country that reached the same conclusion.

These facts leave
no doubt about the need for more urgent attention to the problems of these
young people. In response to this need the Commission recently commenced
the "Outlink" project to establish a national network of young lesbians,
gay men and bisexuals in rural Australia and the organisations that support
them. The project, which is co-funded by the Australian Youth Foundation,
was launched in Bathurst, New South Wales, on 4 May. Tasmanian gay activist
Rodney Croome, who himself grew up in a country town, is the project co-ordinator.
For the next nine months he will be working with young people, support
services, advocates, gay groups, youth groups, parents groups and others
in country areas to get the network established. I'm glad that Rodney
has been able to come to this forum. I hope you will have a talk with
him while you're here.

Of course, many organisations
are already providing invaluable support for young gay, lesbian and bisexual
people. The Country AIDS Network is an excellent example of this. The
national network that will result from the "Outlink" project will support
the work of existing bodies such as the Country AIDS Network by giving
them a national network to tap into. The national body will facilitate
greater collaboration, mutual support and exchange of information among
existing advocates and services across the country. For young people themselves,
it will increase their knowledge of, and access to, services and will
also be a mechanism for peer support and advocacy.

Response to comments
by Archbishop Pell

Addressing the human
rights of people with HIV/AIDS and other blood borne diseases and of gay
and lesbian people requires more than legislation and support. It also
requires community education and fundamental changes in community attitudes.
There is still a great deal of ignorance, misinformation and prejudice
in the community about issues surrounding HIV/AIDS and sexuality. The
extent of these was highlighted most recently in media reports of comments
allegedly made by the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr George Pell.
Some of you would have read the article 'Being gay is riskier than smoking,
Pell preaches' published in The Australian on Monday 24 May, and
the Archbishop's reply in The Age on Friday 28 May.

The comments attributed
to Archbishop Pell in The Australian were simply factually inaccurate
and lacking in knowledge and compassion. Archbishop Pell reportedly denied
that there was any link between youth suicide and the active condemnation
of homosexuals that occurs in sections of the community, including many
schools, churches and other institutions. He implied the same in his opinion
piece in The Age. However, the link between youth suicide and homophobia
has been confirmed repeatedly in studies all around the country. They
leave no doubt that the rejection and isolation experienced by these young
people is a major factor in their disproportionately high levels of suicide
and suicide attempts, substance abuse and other self-harm.

Archbishop Pell also
reportedly suggested that there is a causal connection between homosexual
activity and the AIDS virus. HIV/AIDS is neither a homosexual nor a heterosexual
disease. It is caused by unsafe sexual practices and a range of other
activities that have no connection whatsoever with a person's sexual orientation.
To suggest otherwise can only increase ignorance of the disease and its
causes, thereby putting more people at risk of infection.

Archbishop Pell's
reported assertion that homosexual activity is a greater health hazard
than smoking was refuted by the author of the article in The Australian,
Katherine Towers, who quoted statistics confirming overwhelmingly that
the opposite is the case. She noted that in Australia and New Zealand
AIDS has killed 5,732 people in total since the onset of the virus in
1982, whereas, according to Quit Australia, more than 18,000 Australians
die each year from smoking-related illnesses. Archbishop Pell was reported
the next day as having qualified his comments. He is reported as saying
that he was comparing risks as a proportion of the relevant population.
The facts still do not support these assertions. Then in The Age
he gave another interpretation, that being gay was riskier because HIV
can be contracted through one sexual encounter whereas smoking related
diseases require repeated activity. Throughout these attempts at explanation
and interpretation, Archbishop Pell has maintained his central message
that same-sex relationships are inherently unsafe and unhappy.

The basis of Archbishop
Pell's comments, his underlying fear, finally became clear in his piece
in The Age. He speaks about people "recruiting" others into homosexuality.
He speaks as if being gay were the same as being recruited as a soldier
or an employee or even a priest. Archbishop Pell seems to think it is
a matter of choice. But it is not.

The attitudes underlying
Archbishop Pell's remarks will only exacerbate the problems faced by young
lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. Indeed what is undoubtedly 'riskier than
smoking' is ignorance, prejudice, intolerance and disrespect. And, dare
I point this out to Archbishop Pell, they are also contrary to Catholic
teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the most comprehensive
statement of Catholic teaching issued by the present pope, says unequivocally,
'[Homosexuals] must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.
Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided'
(paragraph 2358).

Let me emphasise
that in this forum my comments do not relate to Catholic teaching on same
sex activity - as a Catholic I save my comments on that for forums inside
the church. Here my comments relate to statements that concern homosexual
people and attitudes and practices directed towards them, statements that
in my view are themselves contrary to Catholic teaching. While it may
not be intended, remarks like those made by Archbishop Pell contribute
to the climate of intolerance that in fact leads to suicide and to acts
of hatred and violence against gay and lesbians. Instead of condemning
our young people because of their sexual orientation, we should be giving
them the support they need to deal with these issues, in an environment
free from prejudice and discrimination. That's what the Commission is
trying to do in its Outlink Project.

Rural health

The issues you will
be discussing at this conference are part of a broader human rights question,
the right of all people to good quality health care in regional, rural
and remote areas of Australia. As part of the Commission's Bush Talks
program I have visited more than 40 rural communities in the last year,
listening to people's human rights concerns and relaying these concerns
back to the wider community. One of the most persistent issues raised
by country Australians has been their access to quality health care.

There is no doubt
that these concerns are well founded. The general health of country Australians
is poor in comparison to urban Australians. Country Australians have a
lower life expectancy, higher rates of avoidable injury, higher suicide
rates and higher rates of illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.
This situation is even more serious for Indigenous people in rural and
remote areas.

Health needs may
be greater but the availability of health services is considerably less
in rural areas than in urban. For example, 30% of the population lives
in the bush - but only 16% of Australia's doctors.3 Even where
there are doctors, it is often the case that there are no doctors who
bulk bill. And we are talking about access to an ordinary GP. As I am
sure many of you would be aware, gaining access to regular specialist
care in rural and remote communities can be especially difficult and expensive.
Compared with capital cities, small rural centres have less than half
the supply per capita of specialists.4 For people with chronic
and debilitating conditions, it can be near to impossible to regularly
travel the distances to reach medical treatment.

People with HIV/AIDS,
Hep C and other blood borne diseases in country Victoria are not only
vulnerable to discrimination because of the nature of the disease. They
are also at a disadvantage simply because of where they live.

Of course, the health
care problems I encountered on Bush Talks were very different according
to which region we visited - some towns have plenty of access to GPs but
no services for the mentally ill. Others have a doctor but no hospital.
There are also differences in the state of rural health depending on whether
you live in a remote area or in a rural town, what the economic situation
is like in that area, whether or not you are Indigenous.

Even though country
Australians experience considerable disadvantage in the provision of health
care, our visits to rural communities have revealed some inspirational
community based responses to health care needs. This is the good news
that can help us find a future for country people.

The Commission this
year will respond to what we have heard by undertaking a project on rural
health to identify successful rural and remote community initiatives and
publicise them so that others working in this area are informed and inspired.
Country Australians who have successfully responded to the challenge of
providing health care in the bush will provide models for others who share
this aim. I welcome any suggestions that you may have about successful
community-based initiatives in the area of HIV/AIDS health in rural and
remote Victoria.

Conclusion

Promoting the human
rights to good health and good health care includes two elements you are
all committed to: overcoming the ignorance and lack of understanding surrounding
HIV/AIDS, Hep C and blood borne diseases and providing support and medical
services to those affected by these diseases. Through your commitment
and hard work you have helped to break down ignorance and provide a more
accepting and supportive environment for those affected by these conditions.
I commend you all for your achievements and wish you well as you continue
to pursue this important goal.

Endnotes

1Annual
Report 1997-98
, page 51.
2 Jonathon Nicholas and John Howard, 'Better dead than gay?',
Youth Studies Australia, Vol.17, No.4, December 1998.
3Northern Daily Leader, 26 July 1997, page 1, cited
in ACSWC: Valuing rural communities, 1998, page 12.
4 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Health in
rural and remote Australia
, AIHW, Canberra, 1998, page 87.

Last
updated 1 December 2001

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