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Human rights issues for rural families: Chris Sidoti (1998)

Rights and Freedoms

Human rights issues for
rural families

Address by Chris Sidoti, Human
Rights Commissioner to the Family Support Services Association of NSW
Annual Conference, Bathurst, 22 July 1998

Families, and those
who support them, play a vital role in the protection of human rights.
Accordingly, I am very pleased to address this conference, and I commend
all of you for your work in preserving and strengthening families.

I would like this
morning to talk about some human rights issues and challenges facing families
in rural Australia. I would also like to outline some work the Human Rights
and Equal Opportunity Commission is currently doing to respond to these

Some of my comments
will be of a critical nature as I am especially concerned about the lack
of attention given to the needs of rural families. People like you in
the family support sector do a great job under very trying circumstances.
But their work is hindered by lack of resources, lack of political will
and systems failures. You find it hard to do your jobs as effectively
as you would like to and need to.

Times of change

The idealised picture
of rural families and communities has played an important part in the
social and cultural history of Australia. And it is an idyll which has
a strong presence still, continuing to shape much of our concept of ourselves
as a nation and a people. For some families living in rural areas, life
can be good. A slower pace of life, the physical beauty of the Australian
landscape and, for some, a greater sense of community are all aspects
of rural life that many urban Australians dream about.

However, while we
crave for the image to be true, we know that other harsher realities have
intervened. For many life is unbearably difficult in rural and remote
Australia. For many the lives of rural families are now described more
readily in terms of insecurity, despondency and despair.

Distance and remoteness,
the extremes of weather and the uncertainties of the rural economy are
all factors that can influence and erode the quality of life for many
rural families. Today families living in rural, regional and remote Australia
are struggling with economic and social change and reduced services. Rural
life is again at the forefront of our national self-image, this time representing
the struggles and hardship of wider Australia. In the last few decades
the infrastructure and community of many Australian rural, regional and
remote communities have been slowly pared away. In town after town across
Australia banks, post offices, health and medical services and hospitals
have been disappearing. Government support for public services is being
reduced and the quality of life for many people is being reduced with
it. It has been described to me as the "dying town syndrome".

Human rights

All of these issues
have human rights dimensions. They affect the most basic rights of rural

By virtue of birth
each of us has an entitlement to certain fundamental human rights. Human
rights are not granted to us by others or by the government. They are
our entitlements to be enjoyed simply by reason of our common humanity
and innate dignity as human beings. For that reason we cannot agree to
give them up and they cannot be taken away from us.

Human rights are
universal. They apply to all people irrespective of their status or their
circumstances. They are not just for minorities or for the majority. They
are for everyone.

Human rights are
spelt out in a number of international treaties. It is a common misconception
that human rights are imposed on sovereign nations by the United Nations.
While there are some standards - such as the universal prohibition of
torture and genocide - which apply to every government regardless of its
own inclinations, the truth is that countries choose for themselves whether
or not to sign up to a treaty. If they do, it is akin to a contract.

Two of the most important
human rights treaties are the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights, both concluded in 1966. The rights they spell out are wide-ranging
and set minimum standards which all participating countries agree to implement.

Rights and freedoms
recognised in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

  • freedom of expression,
    including the right to impart and receive information and ideas
  • freedom from arbitrary
    arrest and detention
  • freedom from arbitrary
    interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence
  • freedom of thought,
    conscience and religion
  • peaceful assembly
  • the right to vote.

The rights contained
in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
include the right of families to assistance and support to enable them
to succeed as the fundamental group in society. Associated with this is
the right to an adequate standard of living, requiring, at a minimum,
adequate food and nutrition, clothing, housing and necessary care and
support such as health and medical services. This treaty also covers economic
rights such as the right to property, the right to work and the right
to social security.

Another important
treaty for families is the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The
Convention makes it clear that children have the right to adequate services
and that parents are entitled to appropriate support from the government
in the care and development of their children. The Convention spells out
that the child has the right

  • to the highest
    standard of health care and medical care attainable and access to effective
    health services
  • to free and compulsory
    primary education and accessible secondary education
  • to be protected
    from all forms of abuse and neglect at the hands of parents or others
    responsible for their care and appropriate social programs to prevent
    abuse and to treat victims
  • to benefit from
    social security
  • to special care,
    education and training as required to enjoy a full and decent life.

The Convention is
a "family-friendly" document which places special emphasis on
the role of the family and requires governments to support parents in
looking after children.

Many people think
of human rights only in terms of civil and political rights but it is
clear from these treaties that people’s economic and material well-being
are equally matters of human rights.

These rights are
often overlooked by governments as they raise issues of public welfare
and public spending and in a climate of fiscal restraint governments are
unwilling to face issues which require more spending. And in a climate
of economic rationalism governments reject many spending options that,
in purely economic terms, are not cost effective. However we have committed
ourselves as a nation to uphold these rights and ensure that the basic
needs of every person are satisfied.

The status of families
in rural Australia

The Human Rights
and Equal Opportunity Commission has responsibilities under Australian
law to protect and promote these rights in this country. Since its establishment
in 1986, the Commission has investigated many particular situations of
human rights breakdown affecting families. They include care and protection
of children, juvenile justice, mental illness, access to clean, safe water,
access to appropriate health services and violence based on race or ethnicity.
In every case we found that rural and remote Australians have distinctive
human rights problems. They suffer a higher risk and a double disability.


The incidence of
poverty in rural and remote areas of NSW is considerably higher than the
state average. A 1993 study estimated that the number of households in
rural and remote areas living in poverty range from almost 1 in every
5 in major regional centres to as high as 1 in 4 in smaller and remote

Social security

Access to the social
security system is a real problem for many farming families. The capital
value of their farms often prevents them from accessing social security
benefits even though their income is very low. They can’t borrow
because their cash flow is so low. They would lose a great deal on their
capital investment if they were to try to sell their land. In addition,
the average age of farmers is increasing - they are not as strong as they
used to be and cannot do as much around the farm anymore. People in these
circumstances sometimes experience depression but are reluctant to ask
for help because they have always been self-reliant.

I have been told
that the social security rules don’t take the needs of farming families
into account. The Mid-North Coast Rural Service Providers Network has
come up with some simple changes to the rules which I hope the Federal
Government will look at seriously. For example, it proposes that a wider
range of farmers could be paid a NewStart allowance to perform community
service for 2 days each week. That makes a lot of sense, particularly
if that community service assists rural development: training young people
to take over in the future, ecological projects, assisting to diversify
rural production. For ageing farmers the Network proposes a broadening
of the assets test for aged pensions.


The general health
of rural people is worse than that of city people. Access to adequate
health care, fewer GPs and virtually no specialists in most areas make
it harder to maintain good health and make even everyday medical emergencies
life threatening. Another serious problem is the comparative unavailability
of appropriate rescue and treatment facilities.

In Corryong in Victoria,
a town of 1,500 on which another 1,500 in the region depend, a former
nurse told us

Heaven help
anyone who has a heart attack, major accident or haemorrhage from now
on, because with the downgrade of the Hospital Services our one and only
ambulance with its one and only driver will have to get that person to
hospital in Albury or Wodonga 125 kilometres away [which takes at least
90 minutes]. How can he drive and care for a seriously ill patient?

A recent study in
the Barwon region found that each rural GP will see more patients than
his or her urban counterparts, but see them less often.

Nationally, residents
of the major urban areas have one GP for every 830 people. But in country
areas there is only one GP for every 1,247 people.

Residents of rural
and remote areas are at higher risk of violent death by accidents, suicide
and murder than residents of urban areas. Factors contributing to this
include high speed, long distance travel, often on unsealed roads, working
with dangerous machinery and availability of firearms.

The New South Wales
Country Women’s Association noted that one very worrying consequence
of the downturn in the rural economy is that farm equipment is being serviced
less regularly. It appears that one result is an increase in farm accidents.


The Convention on
the Rights of the Child requires that education be equally accessible
to all children. A study by the Centre for Rural Research found that rural
children do not enjoy the same access to education and training as urban
children. Many country schools are not adequately equipped to perform
effectively and have difficulty in attracting and retaining high calibre
teachers. While most rural schools have lower student-teacher ratios than
most urban schools, rural schools face other difficulties in providing
education, including limited choices of classes, lack of specialisation
in teaching staff and fewer resources for library, sports and computer
facilities. Many rural communities have no schools at all and children
may be forced to attend school in neighbouring communities which taxes
their time, energy and educational aspirations. This situation is worse
at the secondary school level. Many rural schools are not funded to cater
appropriately for the needs of children with a disability. Many do not
offer classes beyond Year 10. Both these situations force country students
to travel long distances to attend neighbouring schools or to leave their
families and communities and go to boarding school.

Studies have shown
that country students, particularly Aboriginal students, are more than
twice as likely to drop out of school before Year 12 than children in
metropolitan areas.

Access to child

It has never been
easy for rural families to get good quality child care but it seems to
be getting worse, not better. Regardless of arguments about whether governments
are spending more or less on child care in absolute terms, it is clear
that many individual services have been cut back and that many families
can no longer afford it.

The Federal Government’s
decision in August 1996 to remove the Operational Subsidy from community
based long day care centres, which came into effect on 1 July 1997, has
had that effect, for example. The June 1997 edition of the newsletter
Broadside published by the Community Child Care Co-Operative Ltd ( NSW)

The Federal
Government’s decision to remove Operational Subsidy from community
based long day care centres means that in NSW, 450 services providing
child care places will lose a total of $16.7 million per year.

The impact of
the removal of operational subsidy presents the early childhood profession
with serious questions regarding affordability and quality of care.
As of 1 July 1997 it is predicted that the loss of operational subsidy
will result in increased fees of up to $25 per week, or a reduction
in service providers.

Under these circumstances
the most disadvantaged families in the community - those with very limited
resources and those requiring specialist services to address particular
areas of need - bear the greatest cost. Lack of affordable child care
services clearly affects country people, many of whom are already in a
lot of financial difficulty.

Access to Family
Court services

A particularly serious
issue for rural families has been the closure of Family Court registries
and the cutting back of circuit counselling services. The alternative
for people now is to travel sometimes very long distances to the nearest
Family Court. For families in stressful situations of conflict and potential
violence, these are not satisfactory options. In a report on children
and the legal system the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
recommended that closure of Family Court registries should be treated
as a least favoured option for dealing with funding constraints in the
Family Court. We recommended that circuits of the counselling service
to rural and remote areas be maintained to an adequate level. The report
also recommended the expansion of toll free telephone access to the court
and greater use of video link and other technology to increase access
to Family Court services for rural families and children.

Other services

Lack of access is
a problem across the entire spectrum of support services in rural areas.
One example from evidence to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s
1988 Inquiry into Homeless Children particularly sticks in my mind. Although
it is somewhat dated now I would like to mention it because it illustrates
the problem in very stark terms. We were told that there was just one
child protection worker for the entire north-west of Western Australia
because 3 positions could not be filled. This worker told the Homeless
Children Inquiry, "if we have a situation of incest, the facilities
here for anyone to be treated in terms of counselled, having been a victim,
a non-abusing parent [or] a perpetrator, are non-existent".

And since 1988 the
problem has got worse, not better. In 1995 a House of Representatives
inquiry into youth homelessness showed that many rural and remote communities
continue to lack essential service infrastructure which is required to
support families. While local community support networks still exist in
rural and remote communities, the changing social and economic circumstances
in these communities no longer provides the safety net it once did for
people when they are in crisis. The lack of support services for families
in small rural communities was seen by local community service providers
as contributing to family breakdown and youth homelessness. A submission
from a worker in a neighbourhood centre commented:

In my opinion,
support for the family unit, is a need that is sadly lacking within our
community ... In many cases, families are dissolving unnecessarily, because
there is not enough adequate support to assist people work through their
difficult period. Young people are often the innocent victims .. neglected
and ignored during times of family upheavals.

Another submission
from a youth service in the Forster/Tuncurry area of NSW, which is experiencing
rapid population growth with the area being settled with young families,
outlined the scarcity of resources and the difficulties members of the
community have in accessing mainstream services.

The area
is poorly serviced for families and young people experiencing difficulties.
Welfare Services for young people in the Shire consist of a Drug and Alcohol
Worker at Community Health, Youth Development Officer, Youth Accommodation
Support Worker. A Family Counsellor from Taree services Forster/Tuncurry
one day per week. There is no emergency accommodation.

Indigenous families

I will be addressing
the session on Reconciliation later today, so I don’t propose speaking
in detail now about issues facing Indigenous families. Suffice to say,
most of the problems I have just described have a disproportionate impact
on Indigenous families. This is not only because so many are located in
rural areas, although that is certainly an important factor. It is also
because of the entrenched prejudice and discrimination which is the daily
experience of many Indigenous Australians.

The elderly

One group of rural
Australians at particular risk - whether or not they are part of a family
unit - is the elderly.

We know, for example,
that war veterans and war widows are over-represented outside the major
metropolitan areas - a third of those entitled to health care through
the Veterans Affairs Department live in the country. Frail, elderly people
are clearly very vulnerable because of the scarcity and inadequacy of
medical services in rural areas. Many veterans suffer psychological and
emotional problems arising from their war service, but counselling and
support services - as the Commission has found in previous inquiries -
are sparse in the bush.

The Minister for
Veterans’ Affairs, Mr Bruce Scott, has undertaken to improve this
situation for veterans and their dependants. In October 1996 he announced
a ‘Health Policy for the Veteran Community in Rural and Remote Areas’
designed to improve access and flexibility.

The young

The problems facing
young people in rural and remote areas are many and complex. Young people
in the bush face a greater likelihood of unemployment than their city
cousins. Their parents are more likely to be unemployed. And their families
are more likely to be living in poverty. The problems of these young people
are reflected in the substantial increase in the suicide rate for young
rural people (aged 15-24 years) over recent years. Country Australia now
has one of the highest youth suicide rates not only in this country but
in the world. One-third of Year 11 and 12 students surveyed in the Riverina
in 1993 reported having suicidal thoughts.

The Human Rights
and Equal Opportunity Commission's Report on Mental Illness identified
many factors contributing to the relatively high levels of suicide among
young rural males:

  • rural economic
    downtown and the corresponding decline of many country towns and farm
  • high levels of
    unemployment and increasing poverty
  • isolation from
    further educational opportunities
  • family financial
    hardship and rising levels of stress
  • ready access to
  • increasing levels
    of domestic violence and alcoholism within many families
  • inadequate mental
    health and counselling services.

Economic conditions
and remoteness combine to deny young people and others their basic rights,
including in too many cases the right to life itself.

Although only about
one-third of the NSW workforce live in rural areas, more than half the
young unemployed live here. They have fewer opportunities for employment
and are more likely to spend long periods out of work than their Sydney


These problems fall
very heavily on the shoulders of rural women. They carry the main burden
of family and domestic responsibility. They are also major contributors
to rural life through community work and in many other ways. Yet they
often receive little support in these roles. A number of women and their
organisations have written or spoken to me about the ‘invisibility’
of rural women and the lack of choice and opportunities which often characterises
their lives.

An area of major
concern for rural women is the lack of access to advocacy and other services
tailored specifically to their needs, particularly services to assist
women who experience discrimination or domestic violence. The isolation
and lack of support is especially acute for rural women with disabilities
and those from non-English speaking backgrounds.

There is an urgent
need for more specialist medical services for women in rural areas, to
deal with issues such as breast cancer. The Kathleen Cunningham Foundation
for Breast Cancer Research recently wrote to me

1991-1994, breast cancer was the cause of death of more than 2600 women
in rural areas. Women with breast cancer who live in rural areas are often
disadvantaged by geographic isolation. They may live far from sources
of breast cancer information, access to specialist medical facilities,
or valuable support networks.

I was very pleased
recently to hear that in response to this great need Australia Post has
provided a grant of $100,000 to the Kathleen Cunningham Foundation to
improve the treatment options for rural women with breast cancer, and
that this has been supplemented by matching funds from the federal Government.

Bush Talks

The problems I have
just described and others demonstrate the need for much greater attention
and priority for families living in the bush. For this reason our Commission
initiated the Bush Talks program in March 1998.

In Bush Talks Commissioners
and staff are visiting as many regional centres, rural towns and remote
communities as possible this year and early next year in every State and
Territory. We go to listen to what country Australians tell us about their
lives, their well-being, their future and the future of their children.
And we go to find ways to respond to their needs more effectively.

The program has received
strong support from the government, mainstream media and peak country
bodies such as the Country Women’s Association, Rural Youth, the
RSL, ATSIC, and the National Farmers Federation. Dr Wendy Craik, Executive
Director of the National Farmers’ Federation said

NFF is concerned
that the gradual reduction in services to rural Australia, especially
in the areas of banking, health and education, are impacting on some of
the rights outlined in the Commission’s mandate. These include the
right ‘to family life, education, welfare assistance and health care,’
and the right [for children] ‘to have their best interests taken
into account in decision making affecting them.

The aim of the visits
and talks is to identify the key human rights issues of concern to country
people. While general research can be obtained from other agencies and
reports I considered it fundamental to visit the rural and regional communities
we were concerned about to get a real understanding of the problems facing

So far we have visited
a number of communities and already we have learnt a lot. The decline
of rural health services has surfaced as the biggest concern so far. We’ve
had a letter from the General Manager of Jerilderie Shire Council. Her
community was without a doctor for 12 months. Now they’ve attracted
one, he’s been denied full visiting rights at the hospital until
the future of the hospital is determined. He can use the hospital only
for accident and emergency cases and has a four hour limit on in-patient
care he can provide. But he can visit another hospital - 35 kilometres
away with no public transport link to Jerilderie.

But people are talking
generally, not just in health, about the need for more and better services:
a complete reversal of the current situation.

The Commission is
considering this and is looking for ways we can do something about the
problems. That will involve a number of possibilities, perhaps an inquiry,
a submission to government, a report, or a project in partnership with
a local government authority or a State or national representative organisation.
But the results have to be tangible to benefit people.

Positive initiatives

As we move around
the country we are also learning about many local initiatives to address
these rural human rights problems. It seems that, while governments dither
or do nothing, many communities are responding themselves in innovative
ways to their needs. They are doing it with few resources but with great
commitment. This demonstrates yet again that the strength of country Australia
lies in communities working together to solve problems. Let me give you
just a few examples of what I have seen.

In Port Augusta in
South Australia a group called Rural and Isolated Children’s Exercise
(RICE) provides services to many of the most disadvantaged children on
isolated settlements and properties across about two thirds of the State.
It has been doing so for over 20 years. It offers family counselling and
family support services, mobile child care and other programs for these
children and their families.

Other communities
are moving to establish services to support people of non English speaking
background. Rural Australia has a much smaller proportion of its population
born in non English speaking countries than urban Australia does. These
people come from many different countries and so the numbers from each
are small. They often experience isolation and do not know where to find
the services and support they need. They can also experience discrimination
and racism. There seem to have been a good number of groups established
over the last year to two to provide this support. In Orange a multicultural
group was established last August. In Port Macquarie I was pleased to
speak at the launch of Multi Kulti in May this year. I have heard of similar
groups forming elsewhere.

In North West Tasmania
local community service organisations were concerned by the high level
of suicide among young people. They knew that many suicides were of young
gay men and lesbians but that these young people were rarely visible and
seldom sought support from local community service agencies. They also
knew that there were many outspoken opponents of repeal of Tasmania’s
anti-gay criminal laws in North West Tasmania and that the area had seen
meetings at which some of the most virulent anti-gay hatred had been preached.
They feared the effect of these local events on young people struggling
to establish their identities as gay or lesbian. These agencies cooperated
in an extensive study of issues confronting young gay men and lesbians
in the area and published the results in Working it out now. They have
decided on many initiatives to ensure that these young people are supported
and affirmed in their own communities and that they are no longer forced
to leave.

In Dubbo the Remote
and Rural Health Training Unit has developed a new approach to two problems,
the departure of young people from country towns and the inability of
these towns to attract and retain health care workers. The unit is conducting
a week long health care career options program for 20 yr 10 students from
high schools in surrounding towns. It hopes that local young people will
be interested in being trained in health care work and will remain in
their own communities in these roles.

Finally the breast
cancer initiative I mentioned earlier is another example of what is possible
when local and national resources are put behind rural people in addressing
their needs.


Without appropriate
community support and government action the quality of life experienced
by many families in rural and remote Australia will continue to be eroded.
This is an issue at all times but particularly at times of hard decisions
about reductions in public expenditure. It is for economists to argue
about the size of the public sector the economy can afford and for governments
to decide how much public money will be raised and spent. My human rights
concern is about priorities. When allocating public funds, when developing
or cutting programs, all levels of government ought to give primary consideration
to the human rights of the people they represent and serve. Priority should
be given to providing adequate funding for programs that seek to meet
the human rights of all Australians families.

updated 1 December 2001