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Human rights in regional, rural and remote Australia: Chris Sidoti (1998)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Human rights in regional,
rural and remote Australia

Address by Chris Sidoti, Human
Rights Commissioner to the South Australian State Conference of the Country
Women’s Association, Peterborough, 24 September 1998

Times of change

When the CWA started
in 1923 about 40% of Australians lived in rural communities. Rural Australia
was made up of small but functioning communities whose members had to
work hard but could make a living from the land.

In 1998, however,
rural Australia - "the wide brown land" - is an unhappier place.
A place that has been all but forgotten in the changes facing Australia
and the world at the end of this century.

Today Australia,
indeed the world, faces economic, social, cultural and technological changes
that exceed even those of the Industrial Revolution. Global technology,
computerisation, travel and access to information are affecting every
level of the community and changing the structures of our society. The
changes today are happening at an unprecedented rate. A rate beyond the
ability of most Australians to cope with. Most have no tools that enable
them to cope.

A letter in a newspaper
recently from a farmer in Queensland said, "I never want to hear
the word globalisation again. It just bamboozles people." This antipathy
is understandable - particularly when people in rural Australia are experiencing
the effects of this change more than anyone. In the last few decades the
globalisation of agriculture and the decline in the terms of trade have
resulted in a loss of income for many farming families and many farms
are now only marginally viable, if they are viable at all. Many communities
in rural Australia are under siege - they have declining populations,
declining incomes, declining services and a declining quality of life.
The infrastructure and community of many rural, regional and remote towns
have been slowly pared away. It’s been described to me by a woman
in Port Augusta as "the dying town syndrome". People are moving
out of towns where they can no longer make a living or find a job - at
the last census date only about 15% of all Australians lived in rural
areas.

In the words of a
woman from a small town in NSW

"As
we head for the year 2000 my greatest concern is for the viability of
small rural towns which are slowly being obliterated by loss of services,
institutions and medical care ... We all need to fight this insidious
process or there will be only ghost towns where busy and fruitful communities
once flourished."

Bush Talks

To address these
issues facing country towns - to look at and attempt to remedy the human
rights dimensions of those problems - the Commission started its Bush
Talks program early this year.

Bush Talks is a series
of consultations to identify human rights issues in regional, rural and
remote areas. At this stage, the BushTalks program is primarily concerned
with listening to country Australians about their concerns.

Before this we have
visited almost 20 centres in other States. We have had productive meetings
with the CWA in those centres and your National President, Mrs Margaret
Smith, has supported the Bush Talks program since its commencement. We’ve
also heard from a range of welfare and advocacy groups, Indigenous people,
women’s organisations, business leaders, local government councillors,
government agencies, as well as a large number of concerned parents, families,
teachers and other individuals.

Bush Talks has four
main objectives.

  1. We seek to inform
    country Australians about their human rights and the role of the Commission,
    a small attempt to overcome what has been called the "Sandstone
    Curtain" of the Great Dividing Range. As one woman wrote, "education
    and promotion campaigns never seem to get past the Great Dividing Range.
    Rural communities have been left behind in the social changes that are
    occurring to people on the Eastern sea board."

  2. We want to provide
    a forum for country Australians to voice their human rights concerns.
    Through the program we are offering an opportunity for different regions
    in Australia to hear what is happening in other rural communities. The
    Commission acts like a "country telegraph".

  3. We aim to identify
    key human rights issues for rural Australians which the Commission can
    then do further work on during the next 2 years. That might be 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.
    Ideas for what we should do come up constantly as I meet with country
    people and their organisations.

  4. We intend to develop
    practical solutions to the main human rights problems that are raised
    . I was told in Tamworth in March "People in rural Australia know
    they’re hurting, but they don’t know the solutions".

Why Bush Talks?

Since its establishment
in 1986, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has investigated
many particular situations of human rights breakdown: homeless children,
people with mental illness, access to clean, safe water, access to appropriate
health services, violence based on race or ethnicity, children and the
legal process. In every case we found that rural and remote Australians
have distinctive human rights problems.

Soon after I was
appointed Human Rights Commissioner I published a paper, in May 1986,
on human rights in rural Australia. The overwhelming response to that
paper convinced me of the need to do much more - to look comprehensively
at what is happening to human rights in rural, regional and remote Australia.

What are human rights?

Human rights belong
to every person by virtue of birth. They are not only for majority groups
or for minority groups.

Human rights are
not granted to us by others or by the government. They are ours 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.

Many people think
of human rights only in terms of civil and political rights such as freedom
of expression, the right to vote and so on. These are of course fundamental
human rights. But matters relating to people’s economic and material
well-being are equally matters of human rights.

Human rights include
the right to an adequate standard of living. The enjoyment of this right
requires, at a minimum, adequate food and nutrition, clothing, housing
and necessary care and support such as health and medical services. Human
rights also include the right to work, the right to social security and
the right to education. They impose an obligation on government to give
assistance and support to families in need.

These rights are
often overlooked because they raise issues of public welfare and public
spending.

However, Australia
has made solemn commitments that oblige it to uphold these rights and
ensure that the basic needs of every person are satisfied.

Everyone in our nation
has the same rights. People in the bush should not be excluded from the
enjoyment of those rights simply because they make up less of the population
or live outside metropolitan centres. As one person stated recently "we
pay the same taxes in the bush so we should get the same services".

Many of the problems
currently facing rural Australia are economic or climate related and beyond
our control. But many of the problems are also human rights problems and
can and must be addressed. I would like to go into some detail about the
concerns that have been raised so far, look at how they might be relevant
to South Australia and talk about how they are issues of human rights.

Human rights problems
in the bush: South Australia

One of the major
areas of concern that have been raised is the decline in social services.
The diminishment of community life that this causes is one factor in high
youth unemployment and youth suicide. Another issue of great concern to
both individuals and businesses in country areas is access to essential
services such as Australia Post, Telstra and banking services.

Perhaps these problems
are issues in rural South Australia even more than in most other states
because of the very small number of people living in small towns and rural
areas. 86.1% of this state’s population lives in ‘urban’
areas. But only three of these urban areas have more than 20,000 people.

Services

Globalisation, economic
reform and cuts in public funding have had a huge impact on rural communities.
Public and private sector agencies seek to cut costs by closing services
such as banks, schools and hospitals which are deemed unviable when they
do not have enough customers or students or patients to justify their
existence in monetary terms. This becomes a vicious cycle as rural populations
are declining, which results in the closure of services, which in turn
makes it more difficult to attract and maintain new populations.

Several government
reports have shown that people living in isolated areas and in communities
of less then 5,000 are especially affected by the lack of access to services.
They can face a ‘lack of information’ about what is available,
the absence or inaccessibility of many services, poorer quality services,
higher costs associated with accessing services, inappropriate service
and funding models that are developed for urban areas and poorly motivated
staff.

Health services

One of the most urgent
issues we have heard about, which is of particular concern to older people,
is the decline in health services - including the basic minimum of hospital
and ambulance services - not to mention important psychiatric and specialist
services.

The health status
of rural Australians is worse than that of urban people and rural Australians
have a different pattern of ill-health. The Australian Institute of Health
and Welfare states that the rate of avoidable deaths in country areas
is 40% higher than in capital cities.

Yet in rural centres
across Australia people are suffering from reduced hospital, aged care
and health services. A letter from NSW stated

"..
we are experiencing massive changes and restructuring of our hospitals,
ancillary community services, abolition of dental services, reclassification
of hospital beds, hospital closures in smaller centres, all of which cause
financial hardship, stress, extra travel costs because of State Government’s
health economic rationalisation."

I am hearing the
same story all over the country. At a meeting in Burnie in Tasmania in
May, people described inadequate co-ordination of services and fragmentation
occurring as a result of short term government grants and privatisation
of health services. For example on the North West Coast there was a five
month wait for paediatric services and a two month wait for home assessment
of people requiring aged care.

People were discharged
from the hospital system as quickly as possible with little care extended
to them in their homes. One woman told us

"An
elderly man was discharged at night and sent home in a taxi despite the
fact that no care was properly available to him."

Another person told
us of the local hospital where sixty patients were under the night-time
care of two nurses whose duties also included the delivery of babies at
the same time.

In South Australia
rural communities are facing the same decrease in services.

In rural and remote
areas there is a significant under-supply of general pratitioners. In
country South Australia this under-supply is estimated at 41 practitioners.

There is also a lack
of specialists in rural areas. Nationally about 1 in 5 specialists reside
in rural areas (2,580 out of 12,000) but the percentages vary considerably
across the States, with the smallest percentages recorded in South Australia
and Western Australia.

In Wudinna, SA (527
people), the dental surgery is only open one day a week and the ambulance
service is provided solely by volunteers.

Risks of unemployment

Economic viability
seems to be the basis of all decisions about rural communities. Whatever
the human cost. In the not too distant past, in all of Australia and even
more so in rural Australia, if you worked hard you could get a job and
a house, you could make a living and support a family. That is no longer
a reality for many people. And people in the bush are suffering from that
change more than most others.

High growth areas
enjoy low unemployment rates. Roxby Downs is an example. It has concentrated
mining and unemployment is only 3.4%. But elsewhere the picture is not
so rosy. The unemployment rate in SA is 10.4%, compared to a national
unemployment rate of 8.1%. As one man stated

"What
is clear ... is that the massive reduction in the public service combined
with the downsizing and cutbacks occurring in corporate Australia is having
a drastic impact on regional Australia. The closure of a CES office, a
SkillShare project, a Telstra depot or a bank branch has a huge effect
on a small town economy. The real need to create employment opportunities
outside the major metropolitan areas has never been greater."

Poorer regions offer
fewer job opportunities for workers. Often towns will be dominated by
a single industry or company and will not have the range of work options
to attract a diverse and skilled workforce.

So often for these
communities if there is no job in the local industry there is no other
work available and unemployed people are forced to leave their homes and
move to the city. If they didn’t leave, rural unemployment rates
would be even higher.

Those who stay find
it difficult to be unemployed in rural areas. Isolation and distance hinder
the job seeking process. Jobs are more difficult to find and there is
a greater risk of long term unemployment and of falling into hopelessness
and despair. For young people aged 15 to 19 the risks are higher than
for others. The rate of unemployment for South Australian young people
looking for full time employment is around 35.5% (compared to a national
rate of 28.8%).

One risk for young
bored unemployed people is the desperate attraction of becoming involved
in crime. The recent report on young people in the legal process Seen
and Heard
- a joint project by the Commission and the Australia Law
Reform Commission - found:

"For
many disenfranchised young people, it seems illegal activity of various
kinds is increasingly being seen as simply part and parcel of economic
survival - a routine way of managing one’s day to day living expenses."

Suicide

The reduction in
services and the reduction in community support and well-being may also
be factors leading to the high rate of suicide in country areas.

Youth suicide is
a particular concern. Young people, particularly young men in rural Australia,
are more likely to commit suicide than those in the cities. In particular
young men in remote settlements with less than 4,000 people are at the
most risk.

The reasons young
people take their own lives are many and complex. 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, including rural economic downtown and the corresponding decline
of many country towns and farm properties, high levels of unemployment
and increasing poverty, isolation from further educational opportunities
and inadequate mental health and counselling services.

The same pressures
affect older people too, of course, Sometimes they too suicide. I’ve
been told of a young father of four who lost his job and hanged himself
- apparently feeling a failure if he went on the dole. He felt that there
is a stigma attached to being dependent on welfare for rural men used
to being able to turn their hand to just about any job, if only the job
is there to do.

In Port Augusta in
June I was told that 4 or 5 adults had suicided in the town in the first
half of this year.

But in general it
is younger people with less maturity who are less able to cope. Economic
conditions and remoteness combine to deny young people and others their
basic rights, including in too many cases the right to life itself.

Economic and
business services

The reduction in
services to rural Australia also seriously affects the competitiveness
and, ultimately, the survival of rural businesses. Whether these are large
beef or crop farms or the local post office, many businesses are affected
by the changes facing rural communities. Yet support of and investment
in small business and industry in rural Australia are necessary to address
the downward spiral of rural life. During our consultations people have
spoken repeatedly about their concerns for telephone, postal and banking
services. Today I’d like to speak briefly about banking.

The reduction of
banking services in rural communities particularly affects elderly people
and people with disabilities. They may be unable to use eftpos and ATMs
because they find them confusing, even frightening, or they cannot remember
their PINs or they fear being mugged after withdrawing from an ATM. If
there’s no public transport to the larger centre which still has
a bank, people unable to or afraid of driving simply cannot conduct their
banking business.

The closure of bank
branches also affects the viability of other services in the communities.
When bank branches close people are forced to travel greater distances
to access bank services. When people travel to larger centres they also
conduct other business there, reducing the viability of other local businesses
and service providers. This movement away from smaller centres puts the
sustainability of those communities at even greater risk. It is another
aspect of the "dying town syndrome".

The whole business
of banking in the bush is undergoing radical change. The Australian Bankers’
Association predicts that

"bank
branches will remain an important part of the banking scene but the number
of branches will be reduced right around Australia. The more than 2,600
branches in rural Australia is too many to be sustained by a banking industry
seeking to become more efficient, and then able to offer more extensive
and higher value services."

Proposals in WA attempt
to address the issue in that State but the recommendations don’t
take into account the needs of elderly people and people with disabilities
I mentioned. The Regional Financial Services Taskforce set up by the WA
Minister for Fair Trading recommended

  1. that banks provide
    rural communities affected by branch closures with greater access to
    automatic teller machines able to use all types of cards and

  2. that Australia
    Post expand its regional giroPost network as a matter of priority, with
    federal funding where the introduction of the service is not commercially
    viable.

The National Farmers’
Federation has recommended that mobile banking services be developed and
extended by service providers. These services have been welcomed by farmers
particularly when they live considerable distances out of town and the
services are provided by people who are skilled in their business. The
NFF also recommended that banks should develop education programs for
their customers, particularly the elderly, which would enable people to
use available electronic facilities and make enquiries without having
to visit their branch.15 Certainly banks must ensure accessibility for
all.

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 many communities are
responding themselves in innovative ways. 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 here
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 from non-English speaking
backgrounds. Rural Australia has a much smaller proportion of its population
born overseas 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 seems
to have been a good number of groups established over the last year to
two to provide this support. In Orange, NSW, a multicultural group was
established last August. In Port Macquarie, NSW, 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. 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 in New South
Wales 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.

Conclusion

Without appropriate
community support, including from city people, and government action the
quality of life of many people in regional, rural and remote Australia
will 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 concern from a human rights perspective 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. As one person told us

"Governments
must acknowledge the fact that people live in rural communities and need
to be recognised as being a part of a society rather than part of an economy."

Priority should be
given to providing adequate funding for programs that seek to meet the
human rights of all Australians. These programs should encourage new businesses
to create new jobs. They will help to draw people back into the towns
and allow the process of renewal slowly to begin to breathe new life into
dying towns.

The people on the
land are part of the community of Australia. We all have a role to play
in the future of our country. In Orange we were told

"We
talk as if we are almost a different race - especially people on country
properties. [But] the dependence goes both ways. There’s a whole
lot of support the country gives the city and vice versa. Phone calls
need to go both ways. Business goes both ways."

Last
updated 1 December 2001

See Also