Skip to main content

Global to local: making human rights a reality in Australia today (2008)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Global to local: making human rights a reality in Australia today

Graeme Innes AM

United Nations Association of Australia (NSW) Conference on the 60th Anniversary of the Human Rights Declaration

10 December 2008
Parliament House, Sydney


I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

Attorney-General, The Hon Robert McClelland MP, Governor of NSW, Professor Marie Bashir AC, CVO, President of the Evatt foundation, Dr Chris Sheil, International guests, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. Today is a very proud day, at the end of a proud year. Today we celebrate the diamond anniversary of the international commitment to protecting the freedom, dignity and equality of all people.

We all know that Australia, through the efforts of Dr HV Evatt, played an important role in the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It's a source of continuing inspiration for us all. And as you've heard this morning, today we can look forward to a national conversation about the importance of human rights, and how we want them to be protected in Australia. We have an opportunity to bring human rights home.

This has been a great year for human rights in Australia. You've heard the Attorney outline some of the year’s achievements. They're worth acknowledging.

The year started with the tremendously moving apology to Australia’s indigenous people. We've also seen a commitment, from all Australian governments, to closing the gap in Indigenous life expectancy, and an unprecedented level of funding for Indigenous health initiatives.

This year we've also seen the closure of the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, and the abolition of temporary protection visas.

In July, Australia ratified the Convention on the Rights of people with Disability.

In August, the government issued a standing invitation to United Nations experts to visit Australia.

In November, we saw the passage of legislation removing discrimination against same-sex couples from almost all Commonwealth laws.

Our government has also ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention Eliminating all forms of Discrimination against Women, and is conducting consultations regarding the implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. And last Wednesday, the government announced the release of the National Interest Assessment for the Optional Protocol to the Disability Convention. Attorney, and your staff, a good twelve months work.

This year, we've seen two major changes in human rights: firstly, a renewed commitment to meeting our international obligations, and to engaging with the United Nations. Secondly, and more importantly, this has translated into concrete progress in the protection of human rights in Australia.

I want to speak personally about the impact of one of these changes, the Convention on the Rights of people with Disabilitity.

One of the government’s major achievements this year – as part of its re-engagement with the UN – was the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of people with Disability. This was in record time – just over a year after its opening for signature. Australia was one of the first, and is still one of the very few, developed nations to ratify the Convention. And to top that off, we not only nominated an expert for the treaty body to monitor the Convention, but had Professor Ron McCallum AO - one of Australia's foremost authorities on industrial law, and a person with a disability – elected. I was privileged to be part of the Australian delegation to Convention negotiations. Developed and developing nations, with the greatest ever contribution from NGO's, determined the wording during eight drafting sessions. And their was no prouder Australian than this one when the 650 million people with disability throughout the world gained a specific international treaty about our rights.

Before I talk about the impact of the Convention, I'd like to share some of my own experience as a person with a disability in Australia. Because I know very well both the discrimination faced by people with disabilities, and the great benefits to both individuals and communities when potential is realised.

I'm lucky in the approach that my parents took when I was young. They showed innate good sense when they decided to treat me as just one of three siblings, rather than as a ‘special’ child with a disability. Many kids with disabilities were not treated this way. Their parents, with the best of intentions, wrapped them in cotton wool. It must have been quite hard for my parents, knowing that inevitably I would fail on occasions, or have a negative experience. And those bruised foreheads or scraped knees must have hurt them as much as they hurt me. But their approach was the advantage for me – assuming that I could do things, rather than assuming that I couldn’t. This broadened my experiences, and gave me the sense that I could do what I wanted, rather than limiting my options.

While I was instilled at an early age with a sense of capacity and possibility, I've also faced significant discrimination. From the time I was fourteen I knew that I wanted to study law. I This was because I knew that changing laws was one way to improve society, or to improve opportunities for people in society. My thinking wasn’t as formulated as wanting to redress discrimination – rather it was about changing the way society worked to make it better.

Studying law was hard work. It was the seventies – technology wasn’t what it is today. Many dedicated volunteers read law books onto reel to reel tapes, or onto cassettes, so I could keep up with the reading. Others manually transcribed books into Braille. I wasn't the first blind person to study law, but there were not many of us, and a trail had to be blazed.

The arduous process of finding a job began in 1979. Over twelve months I applied for about thirty jobs in legal positions – in both government agencies and the private sector. In about fifteen of my applications I was unsuccessful because I was just not the best applicant. However, in the other fifteen I was not successful simply because employers couldn't contemplate how a blind person could function as a lawyer. And no matter how much I explained what I would do to overcome my blindness, which I'd been doing all my life, they just didn't buy it.

In despair, I took a job in the NSW public service – not as a lawyer, but as a clerical assistant. I used to joke that I was the only clerical assistant in the service with a law degree. But it was a job. My first job was with State Lotteries, where one of my duties was to answer the phone, and tell people the winning lotto numbers. I was made redundant from that job by an answering machine.

I worked as a Clerical Assistant in several government departments, before I finally obtained a job as a legal officer in the Department of Consumer Affairs. A professional role that matched my qualifications was a long time coming.

But What has my personal experience got to do with the Convention? It's about the connection between the global and the local. We need a cultural change in Australia when it comes to human rights issues – in the area of disability, and in many other areas. Unfortunately, people with a disability still face enormous hurdles in finding employment. The number of people employed in the Commonwealth public service - for instance - is a national disgrace – it has halved in the last ten years. If government wants to send a message to employers that it's serious about the issue of employment of people with disability, and the inclusion of people with disability in society, it has to lead by example.

Our culture needs to change. People with a disability still swim in a sea of discrimination. Discrimination is pervasive, not because people are bad, but because our culture is such that when people encounter a person with disability, they still make all sorts of assumptions about what it is that they cannot do, rather than asking about what they can do. There's a great quote from Rene Cassin, one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who pointed out during the drafting that it would be deceiving the peoples of the world to let them think that a legal provision was all that was required ... when in fact an entire social structure had to be transformed.

Like Rene Cassin, I believe that one important step to achieving the cultural change that we need with respect to people with disability, is a national commitment to observe international human rights treaties such as the Disability Convention. But the ratification of a Convention is where the journey begins, not where it ends. The ratification of the Disability Convention is an important symbol to our nation. It's about our government saying that these rights matter, that we are committed to observing them.

I felt tremendously proud the day that Australia ratified the Convention. Because my government was saying to me, and the 20 % of australians with disability, we want discrimination against you to come to an end, and we want you to be fully included as Australian citizens. Its the message I've wanted, and I've worked for, for much of my life.

But the commitment to the treaty must be matched by practical action if real change is to occur. The Convention provides Australia, and all other ratifying countries, with a framework for setting goals, developing national laws, and implementing a National Disbility Strategy, to bring about full equality and inclusion for people with disability. I was about to phone Parliamentary Secretary for disability Bill Shorten, and point this out to him when Australia ratified, but he called me first to say that this was the way the government was going. I congratulated him at the time, and my views have not changed. Consultation has begun on the strategy, and people with disability across the country have been expressing their views on a combined strategy for Commonwealth, State and Local government. We have to wait and see what the content is like, but the signs are promising.

The Convention, and the National Disability Strategy, will contribute to a concrete and practical improvement in the lives of people with a disability in Australia. And I hope, as well, that it will contribute to a cultural shift in attitudes towards people with disability.

So we've seen some great steps forward in human rights protections in Australia. We've ratified a new treaty, and begun its implementation. We're making progress, but there is still a long way to go.

The truth is, in the disability area and more broadly, while we've come a long way, human rights are still insufficiently protected in Australia. Let me give you a few familiar examples from my work as Human Rights Commissioner.

The first is mandatory detention of asylum seekers, who arrive in Australia without a visa. This policy has had devastating impacts on both adults and children. One boy was so affected and distressed by his detention at Woomera immigration detention centre, that in the space of four months, he tried to hang himself four times, climbed into the razor wire four times, slashed his arms twice, and went on hunger strike twice. He was fourte, as an Australian, has to deal with the additional trauma caused to him by his detention.

Some important changes have been made since then, which mean that children aren’t held in immigration detention centres anymore. But they are still held in alternative forms of detention, and even though it's currently being softened, Australia’s mandatory detention policy still stands.

Australia’s anti-terrorism laws also have insufficient regard for human rights standards. They significantly restrict rights such as freedom of expression, and freedom of association. The impact of the powers to detain people without charge were graphically demonstrated in the case of Dr Haneef, an innocent man detained for 12 days without charge.

These, and many other examples, demonstrate the need for greater human rights protection in Australia. So, what do we need?

The Australian Human Rights Commission believes that the first step towards achieving better rights protections, and a human rights culture in Australia, is through a federal human rights Act. Many of the worst violations of human rights that have taken place in Australia, could have been prevented – or at least, minimised – if there had been a clear legal statement of the basic rights which the government and public bodies were committed to respecting and promoting. The aim of a human rights act is to bring human rights considerations into our law-making and administrative processes, so that we can debate the human rights implications before passing laws like the mandatory detention law.

Australia is the only western democracy without some form of comprehensive legal protection of human rights. It's time we caught up with the rest of the world.

Debate about the merits of a human rights act for Australia has already begun in our newspapers and on talkback radio. At one end of the spectrum, as described by the attorney,
last week callers to a radio program were promoting the protections of rights such as:

  • the right to wear thongs anywhere I please
  • the right to collect my ball from over my neighbour’s fence.

I’m pleased to see that Australians are already taking it all so seriously, in true Aussie spirit! Though I wonder if these particular rights might end up on the cutting room floor…

More serious questions involve matters such as what a human rights act means for Australian democracy, and whether a charter transfers too much power to our judges. A human rights act is fundamentally democratic. It would not, as many commentators would have you believe, transfer power to judges. Instead, it would ask judges to advise Parliament about whether laws complied with human rights standards. The last word would always stay with Parliament.

A human rights act would simply cement in Australian law the basic standards of dignity, equality and fairness, that the government has already agreed to uphold through ratifying the major international treaties.

To return to my examples of life as a person with a disability, I believe that a human rights act would improve the rights of people with a disability. All laws would need to be examined with our human rights in mind – including the right to non-discrimination. Perhaps more importantly, a human rights act would lead to the development of a culture of rights in Australia – we would all think about rights more often, and we would think about what we could all do, in our daily lives, to help make Australia a place where everyone’s rights are respected and protected.

If we are to succeed in securing a federal human rights act, and reaching this new way of thinking about each other, people like you will need to be the agents of change. And not just at an expert policy or legislative level, but at a human level. The consultation announced today is a great opportunity to raise this country’s collective awareness of rights. It's an opportunity for all people in Australia to learn more about each other, and more about our human rights. And it's an opportunity to tell each other, and the government, about what rights we think are important, and should be protected.

So this is our challenge – to be active players in this new era of rights. Spread the word. Reach out beyond the usual suspects you might expect to take part in a consultation like this. We need to include as broad and diverse a range of voices as possible. Talk to your friends, your colleagues, your neighbours and your community about human rights. This is a once in a generation opportunity to bring human rights home. To make the connection between the aspirations of the Universal Declaration, and our aspirations for a just, free and fair Australia. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who put it much more eloquently: Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seek equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.

See Also