Skip to main content

President Speech: Flinders University Law School Prize Giving Ceremony 2010

Commission Commission – General

Flinders University Law School Prize Giving Ceremony 2010

The Hon Catherine Branson QC,
President,
Australian Human Rights Commission

6 April 2010


Acknowledgement of Country

I am honoured to have been invited to address you this evening on this
beautiful campus of the Flinders University of South Australia. Let me begin my
address by recalling that, long before the establishment of this prestigious
place of learning in the European tradition, there was learning of another
tradition here; the learning of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains.I would
like to acknowledge the Kaurna people, the traditional owners of the land on
which we meet, and pay my respect to their elders, past and present.

Introduction

I would also like to extend my sincere congratulations to all tonight’s
prize winners. Your academic achievements are testament to your hard work and
your dedication to your studies. It is fitting that we celebrate your success
tonight among your family and friends, many of whom have undoubtedly provided
you with invaluable support and encouragement in your academic pursuits.

I suspect that among the reasons that caused you to study law was your belief
in the inherent dignity of the individual and the value that you place on
equality, freedom, respect and fairness. As well as being the values that guide
our work in the legal profession, these are the fundamental values that underpin
the concept of human rights.

Tonight, I wish to share with you the stories of two Australians who, like
you, excelled in their legal studies. Each of these lawyers went on to make a
remarkable contribution to the human rights landscape in Australia. In speaking
of the achievements of these two special individuals I don’t want to be
thought to devalue the more modest contributions to human rights protections
that we can all make - by, for example, treating everyone that we deal with
respectfully and avoiding judgments based on stereotypes. Nor do I wish to
over-state the capacity of individuals to affect social change. We know that
most truly fundamental social changes arise out of pervasive political or
economic changes or technological advances. But we do need individuals to be
there who are ready and able to ‘seize the day’ when the time is
ripe.

But getting back to the two well-known Australian lawyers about whom I wish
to speak, Dr RV Evatt and Dame Roma Mitchell, my motivation in speaking to you
about their public lives is to seek to inspire you also to play a part in
building a stronger human rights culture in Australia throughout your legal
studies and during your future careers.

HV Evatt

We can be proud of the fact that Australia played a prominent role in the
early development of international human rights concepts.

Largely through the efforts of Dr HV Evatt, Australia was influential in
shaping the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into the comprehensive
document we know today. Dr Evatt was a brilliant scholar at the University of
Sydney, having attained a Bachelor of Arts with triple first-class honours and
the University Medal, a Master of Arts, a Bachelor of Laws with first class
honours and the University Medal, a Doctor of Laws and a Doctor of Letters.

Dr Evatt was admitted to the bar in NSW, and took silk before becoming a
Member of the NSW Parliament in 1925. He left Parliament to take up a position
on the High Court bench. In 1940, Evatt resigned from the bench to enter federal
politics, serving at times as Attorney-General, Minister for External Affairs
and Deputy Prime Minister. As Minister for External Affairs, Evatt made a
notable contribution to the development of the United Nations Charter and in
1946 and 1947 led the Australian delegation to the United Nations. Dr Evatt took
the then unusual step of including a woman, Jessie Street, in the delegation and
strongly supported her efforts to have the principle of gender equality included
in Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1948, Evatt served as President of the United Nations General Assembly. It
was fitting that during his term as President, Dr Evatt presided over the
proclamation and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In his contributions to the evolving Universal Declaration, Evatt negotiated
the inclusion of both the right to belong to a trade union and the protection of
economic, social and cultural rights. In fact, article 55 of the Declaration,
which commits the United Nations to promote ‘higher standards of living,
full employment and conditions of economic and social progress and
development’, became known as the ‘Australian
pledge’.[1] Indeed, the
Australian delegation advocated strongly for something more than a Declaration
– they foresaw the need for an enforceable Covenant and considered
Australia as:

from the beginning, ... one of the leaders in this
field.
[2]

The adoption of the Universal Declaration was a momentous occasion for the
new international community. Evatt himself saw the Declaration as having:

a moral power ... of enormous weight and influence.

He said that it was a document:

... backed by the authority of the body of opinion of the United Nations
as a whole and millions of people, men, women, and children all over the world,
would turn to it for help, guidance and
inspiration.
[3]

Quite aside from the leadership role he took on the international stage,
Evatt made a significant contribution to the human rights landscape at home.
Evatt served as counsel in the Communist Party Case, a case which many of you
will have studied. That case is one of Australia’s most significant
constitutional law cases and stands strongly for the preservation of civil
liberties in Australia. Evatt, although strongly anti-communist in personal
persuasion, argued passionately in his opposition to the Dissolution Act on the
grounds that:

Communists are fellow citizens. Let them have freedom of expression unless
they break the law of the
country.[4]

Combining the technical skills of advocacy and argument with commitment to
the underlying principles of fairness, freedom and respect that the law is
designed to uphold, Evatt made a wonderful contribution to the development of a
fairer Australia and to a world that better understands and protects the
inherent dignity of all people.

Dame Roma Mitchell

I now move forward in time, to another Australian who has built upon her
legal education to leave a lasting legacy of better protection for human rights
in Australia.

Dame Roma Mitchell remains a particular inspiration to me, and to many
Australian women, particularly those in the legal profession. Dame Roma became
in 1962, the first Australian woman to be appointed Queen’s Counsel; she
became the first to hold office as a judge of a superior court; in 1983 she
became the first to be elected as Chancellor of an Australian university and she
became, in 1991, the first to hold vice-regal office.

I am fortunate enough to have known Dame Roma. While a Supreme Court judge,
Dame Roma hosted occasional lunches for women lawyers and this is how I first
got to know her outside the courtroom. While in her professional roles she
brooked little nonsense and was something of a stickler for the proper
formalities, she was, when away from her official duties, warm, generous and
funny.

Throughout her lifetime, Dame Roma was an outspoken advocate for
women’s rights. Not being discouraged by being barred from the Law
Student’s Society and thereby from participating in moots because she was
a woman, she moved quickly to form the Women’s Law Student’s Society
and an alternative mooting competition. She was instrumental in advocating for
the change in the law in 1962 in South Australia that gave women the right to
sit on juries. She spoke often about issues facing working mothers, was
concerned about the development needs of women returning to work after having
children and she was outspoken about the need for housework to be shared.

In 1981 she was appointed as the first Chair of the Australian Human Rights
Commission, a position that allowed her to speak with fervour on the rights of
all minorities and excluded people in Australian society.

In an interview she gave about her life, Dame Roma recalled her attraction to
a career in the law from a very young age. From the time she was at school, she
made decisions by asking whether or not the outcome was fair. When asked what it
was that drew her to the law, she replied:

I think what I thought was that I was going to get people their rights. I
think it was an advanced human rights effort. We didn't ever hear of human
rights in those days.
[5]

What impresses me about this interview is her determination to change the
status quo. Maybe this is why she found her appointment to the very new
institution of the Australian Human Rights Commission the most challenging, but
important, position she held. She found the challenge of educating the
Australian population about human rights and discrimination particularly
testing. At that time, not so long ago, the phrase ‘human rights’
meant little and the fact that Australia had committed itself to a range of
international obligations was largely unknown and even less well understood.

Dame Roma also made a wonderful contribution to the protection of human
rights in Australia. From Dame Roma, we learn that human rights principles are
not lofty ideas dreamt up by diplomats and academics in the grand corridors of
Geneva. Dame Roma modelled how we can be principled, logical and respectful in
the way in which we approach our tasks. In doing so, she met the compelling
ethical demands of human rights values and showed to us the way in which human
rights are a part of everyday life.

Conclusion

Dr Evatt and Dame Roma both used their legal educations in different ways to
bring about real change in the human rights culture in Australia and around the
world.

While generating social change does not rest solely in the domain of those in
the legal profession, your legal education will instil in you an understanding
of, and respect for, human rights principles and values. You will also
understand that they are a real part of everyday life.

I imagine it comes as no surprise to you that I expect Australia can, and
should, do much better when it comes to incorporating these fundamental human
rights values into our society. The academic successes that we celebrate tonight
demonstrate that you are already taking steps towards becoming leaders in your
chosen fields. I hope you share my expectation of a better human rights future
for Australia and that you have the will and the passion to help make this
happen.

Thank you.


[1] Statement by H.E Gary Quinlan,
Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations Third
Committee regarding the National Statement on Human Rights, delivered on 28
October 2009.
[2] 'The Work of the
Australian Delegation to the Third Session of the General Assembly' (Evatt
Collection, Flinders University: United Nations -- Australian Delegation to the
General Assembly, cited in Hogan, op.
cit.).
[3] General Assembly,
Official Records, 3rd Sess, 1st part, 181st Plenary Mtg, 10 December 1948, p.
875, cited in Harper, N. & Sissons, D., Australia and the United
Nations
(Manhattan Publishing Company: New York, 1959), p. 255 (see Hogan,
op. cit.).
[4] Webb, L,
‘Communism and Democracy in Australia’ (1954), quoted in Williams,
G, ‘Reading the Judicial Mind, Sydney Law Review 1993
[5] Australian Biographies,
Dame Roma Mitchell, available at http://www.australianbiography.gov.au/subjects/mitchell/interview2.html.