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The National Human Rights Consultation - Your chance to be a Human Rights Hero

Rights Rights and Freedoms

The National Human Rights Consultation - Your chance to be a Human Rights Hero

NSW Schools Leadership Forum

06 March 2009

Graeme Innes AM, Human Rights Commissioner

Good morning. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet – the Gadigal people of the Eora nation – and their elders both past and present.

I would also like to thank the organisers of this forum for inviting me to present here today.


As Australians, I reckon most of us would agree that we’re pretty good at sport. We seem to always be in the top ten countries in the medal tallies at the Olympics and Commonwealth games. It comes as a shock to us to see our national sporting sides falter.

Many of our past Australians of the Year awards have gone out to our sporting heros – Steve Waugh, Patrick Rafter, Mark Taylor and Cathy Freeman to name a few. Our young Australians of the year have included Lleyton Hewitt, Casey Stoner, Ian Thorpe, Cathy Freeman (again), Kieren Perkins and Nova Peris-Kneebone. Some amazing individuals who, through hard work and perseverance have become winners and leaders in their chosen sport.

The Australian Human Rights Commission

However, Australia is not just for winners. At the Australian Human Rights Commission, we’re in the business of responding to the needs of those in the community who are vulnerable and disadvantaged. Our job is to promote and protect human rights here in Australia. As Australians, we are renowned for backing the ‘underdog’ and in a sense, I guess, that’s what we do at the Commission – we seek to support those who are disadvantaged in our society.

We receive and resolve complaints of discrimination and breaches of human rights. We hold public inquiries into human rights issues of national importance. We  provide independent legal advice to courts. We provide advice and submissions to parliament and governments to help develop laws and policies. Everything we do is aimed at protecting human rights: for everyone, everywhere, everyday.

Now, when I speak of human rights, I mean the rights that each and every one of us has just because we’re human. They include our right to life, education, health, and shelter. Our right to be free from discrimination – we should all be treated equally, regardless of our gender, our race or whether we have a disability. We all have a right to say what we think as long as we respect what other people say. Human rights are about a society where everyone gets a fair go.

What are the human rights problems we face in Australia?

It is easy enough to provide a list of human rights. But to identify human rights issues in our everyday lives is another task altogether. It is sometimes easy to judge Australia’s human rights record by comparing ourselves to other nations around the world. If we look at what’s going on in places like Darfur or Zimbabwe at the moment, by comparison, we could say that Australia is doing pretty okay.

But unfortunately, the human rights of many people in Australia are not adequately protected.

I’d like to start by telling you a bit of my own story. The last federal election was the first time that I was able to cast a secret vote. For nearly 30 years someone else has helped me every time I have voted. In 2007, a trial of electronic voting changed this. As a young man, even though I was trained as a lawyer, I could only get a job as a clerk in the NSW public service. It took several years before my work reflected my training and qualifications. I have experienced discrimination because I am a person with a disability. My achievements have been result of a mixture of hard work, improvements in technology and slow change towards removing discrimination in our society. We all have an important contribution to make to our society, whatever our situation.

Now let’s think about some of the human rights problems facing children and young people in our country.

  • There is inadequate access to education – particularly for children in rural and remote areas, Indigenous children, children with a disability, and children from diverse cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds.
  • Indigenous children in the Northern Territory are three times more likely to die under the age of one than all other children in Australia.
  • Some families seeking asylum in Australia were detained in immigration detention centres for more than three years – one child was detained for almost five and half years.
  • Employers are allowed to discriminate against young people in terms of pay. This means that a young person with the same skill level, and doing exactly the same task as another employee who is an adult, can legally be paid a different amount for that work.
  • One in every two people requesting accommodation from a homeless service is turned away every day. A staggering 46% of those people who are homeless in Australia are under the age of 25.
  • In the last ten years there has been an increase in reporting to child protection systems. In 2006, 1,530 children died as a result of abuse or neglect.
  • In most states and territories, police have broad powers to ‘move-on’ or detain people in public spaces. These powers disproportionately impact on young people, especially Indigenous and homeless youth.
  • What’s more, children and young people are often not able to participate in political and legal decisions which affect them.

All of these things happen in Australia. Right now. Many of these situations could affect you or people you know. Some of these situations are very serious.

In 2004 we wrote a report about children in immigration detention called “A Last Resort?” Until 2005, anyone who arrived in Australia without a visa was placed in immigration detention. This included families and children – even when they were asylum seekers asking Australia to recognise them as refugees. Some of these children, your age and younger, spent several years in immigration detention, waiting for decisions about their visa applications. The conditions of detention were often harsh. The physical and mental health of children often suffered and they often did not have access to adequate education or recreational facilities.

One boy was so affected and distressed by detention at Woomera, 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 14 years old.

A year after our report was released; the government announced that children and young people under 18 would no longer be held in secure immigration detention centres. They live in other forms of detention while they wait for decisions about their visa applications.

Although children are not held in immigration detention centres, many other people are. You may have heard of the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre here in Sydney. Every year the Commission visits all immigration detention centres in Australia to monitor whether the conditions of detention meet human rights standards. Where we find that they don’t, we make recommendations for change to government.

All of these examples tell us that we should be doing a better job of protecting human rights in Australia. We should be trying to prevent human rights problems from happening in the first place.

National Human Rights Consultation

This year, we have a great opportunity to tell the Australian Government what human rights issues we care about, and what we think should be done to make sure that these rights are respected.

The government has called a National Human Rights Consultation. They are asking us three questions:

  • Which human rights and responsibilities should be protected and promoted?
  • Are human rights sufficiently protected and promoted?
  • How could Australia better protect and promote human rights?

That is:

  • What human rights do we care about?
  • Are those human rights respected in Australia?
  • Could we do a better job of respecting human rights?

We can do better

We have talked about the human rights problems facing Australia. So how can we do better? What would make a difference to the protection of human rights in Australia?

I’d like to start with a question. How many of you think that human rights are protected in Australia’s Constitution? If you put up your hand, you are like many Australians who think that our Constitution protects rights. But unfortunately you are wrong.

In Australia there are very few legal protections of human rights.

Hardly any human rights are protected by the Australian Constitution. We have some laws prohibiting discrimination, such as discrimination on the basis of disability, both nationally and in the states. Some other laws protect our human rights, for example laws about child protection, but they only protect some of our rights, some of the time.

Current laws protecting human rights are often complicated and they are certainly difficult to find. This makes it hard for most of us to know which of our human rights are protected and which ones are not.

I should not be in the situation, where as the national Human Rights Commission, it is difficult for me to describe to you how your human rights are legally protected. We need better laws protecting human rights.

A Human Rights Act for Australia

This is why we believe that the best way forward for human rights protection in Australia is through a national Human Rights Act.

You might be surprised to hear that Australia is the only western democracy without some kind of national law protecting human rights.

So what would a Human Rights Act do?

It would be a statement of all of the human rights that we think should be protected.

And how would it make a difference?

If we had a Human Rights Act our government would be forced to consider human rights when they make new laws. They would be forced to think about human rights every time they made a decision about ordinary Australians.

Let’s take the example that I gave about children in immigration detention. If we had a Human Rights Act, the government would have had to think about human rights when they made the law requiring the detention of children who didn’t have a visa.

This means that a Human Rights Act can help prevent human rights problems from happening in the first place.

Let’s go back to sport. A good way to think about a Human Rights Act is that it is writing down the rules of the game. It would tell everyone in Australia what rules the government would have to follow when it makes decisions about ordinary people. And all of us would know what we could do if we thought our human rights had not been respected.

We need better rules about human rights in Australia.

Has a Human Rights Act made a difference in other places?

The United Kingdom has had a similar law for 10 years now.

The United Kingdom has had a Human Rights Act since 1998. The British Institute of Human Rights tells the story of a woman with mental health problems who increasingly struggled after her husband died. She was placed in 24 hour supported care and her children were fostered. It was agreed that the children could visit their mother three times each week, but these visits were gradually reduced to one per week because the authority did not have enough staff to supervise the visits. This greatly distressed both the children and their mother. The mother’s lawyer argued that children’s right to respect for family life was not being properly respected. The three visits each week were restored as a result. The mother and her children have remained very close and were recently able to go on an overseas holiday together.

You can make a difference

The message that I would like to leave you with today is that you can make a difference.

Through our work, we have found that young people are passionate about human rights.

We know that young people totally reject discrimination, especially on the basis of sex or race. We also know that young Australians feel that Australia’s first inhabitants, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, are being left behind, and that more can be done to further their equality.

We also know that young people want a greater say on those issues which directly concern them. Which seems fair enough to me!

This is your chance to have a say. And what you will be doing is having an influence on what kind of Australia we have in the future. Hopefully it will be a country where more of us really get a fair go.

Let’s go back to the list of Australians and Young Australians of the year. We know we’ve got a pretty good bunch of sportsmen and women, but there are also human rights heroes in there too.

Indigenous rights campaigners – Mick Dodson and Tania Major; Khoa Do – working with disadvantaged youths; and Hugh Evans – humanitarian worker. They may be less well known, but that does not by any stretch undermine their achievements. And there are countless other community leaders who have made life-changing impacts on the lives of everyday Australians because they dared to believe in the beauty of their dreams.

As representatives of today’s youth, you are tomorrow’s leaders. You will have many opportunities to develop both individually and collectively. My hope for you is that you continue to use your talents to positively influence your own lives, and especially the community in which you live.

I encourage you all to share your ideas about human rights and how they should be protected with the consultation committee by filling out the submission forms we’ve got here for you today. All of you have the chance to play the roles of heroes I’ve described. It may not seem like a big thing – just you or you and your mates telling the consultation committee on how you feel about human rights – but each one of us can make a difference, and all of us together can make change.

If you need or want anymore information, you can find it on our website:

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.

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