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President Speech: QUT Law Graduation Ceremony Occasional Address

Commission Commission – General

QUT Law Graduation Ceremony Occasional Address

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

17 December 2009


Acting Chancellor Mr Stephen Keim SC, Vice Chancellor Professor Peter
Coaldrake, Professor the Hon. Michael Lavarch, Executive Dean of Law, other
members of the official party, Faculty staff, graduates and your families and
friends.

First, may I first acknowledge the traditional owners upon whose ancestral
lands this ceremony is being held, and pay my respect to their elders past,
present and future.

Next let me congratulate each of you graduating today. The successful
completion of your course of study is something of which you, and those family
members and others who supported you while you were studying, may feel
justifiably proud. During your years of study you will have called upon your
capacities for hard work, self-discipline and independent thinking – all
qualities that you will find of importance in the years ahead.

The tertiary education that you have been fortunate to receive at this highly
regarded Law School will mark you out as a privileged member of your community
– where ever that community is. I hope that you will forgive me for
reminding you that with privilege comes responsibility. You will not be
surprised to learn that the responsibility that I would like to take this
opportunity to remind you of is the responsibility to respect the human rights
of every individual; to be ever mindful of the inherent dignity of every
person.

Australia is not a country with a well-developed culture of human rights. It
is probably not a coincidence that Australia is the only western democracy
without either a constitutional Bill of Rights or a Human Rights Act. As you may
be aware, the Committee that conducted the recently concluded National Human
Rights Consultation recommended that the Federal Parliament enact a Human Rights
Act for Australia. This recommendation is surprisingly controversial. A very
large proportion of submissions to the National Consultation support a federal
Human Rights Act. There remains, however, significant opposition to this reform.
We have not yet learnt what the Government’s response will be.

I believe that a Human Rights Act would make an important contribution to
Australian society. It would greatly facilitate the development of a human
rights culture in our country. It would do this principally by ensuring that all
who exercise federal governmental power, the executive, the legislature and the
judiciary, are conscious of the human rights of those who could be affected by
their decisions.

Is it important that Australia have a better developed culture of human
rights? I think that it is. I would like to mention this evening two reasons why
I think so.

First, I think that our poorly developed culture of human rights means that
we tend to overlook that everyone in our country has a legitimate claim to
economic, social and cultural rights as well as to civil and political rights.
The economic, social and cultural rights to which I refer include the right to a
decent standard of living, proper education and the highest attainable standard
of health care. These three rights are the human rights that the National
Consultation on Human Rights found mattered most to people in Australia. And
they are the human rights of greatest importance to the most disadvantaged in
any society – including to name just a few categories of disadvantaged
people in our Australian society – many Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Peoples, especially those who live in remote communities; many who are
suffering from psychiatric illness and their families; many people with
disability and their families or other carers; and many who have arrived
recently in this country especially where their language, religion or culture is
not that of the majority of Australians. It is important for us always to
remember that the way in which we treat the most disadvantaged in our society is
probably the most important measure of our worth as a society.

I also think that our poorly developed culture of human rights means that as
a nation we too readily acquiesce when governments interfere with our civil and
political rights. These rights include the right not to be arbitrarily detained,
and the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association – and the
right to enjoy these rights without distinction of any kind based on
characteristics such as race, national origin, colour, sex or religion. Because
we do not have a well-developed culture of human rights I fear that governments
are too easily tempted to infringe on these fundamental rights and freedoms more
than on careful reflection is truly necessary to ensure the security of the
nation.

It is not just that authorities can make mistakes. Our civil and political
rights are worth protecting because they are at the heart of the values that
characterise us as a liberal democracy and should hold us together as a nation.
Moreover, it is increasingly recognised that respect for human rights and the
rule of law can help hold diverse communities together and that it is not
necessary to abrogate either of these things to maintain safe communities
– indeed, doing so may in the longer term prove counterproductive. I was
particularly pleased to read recently that an international conference of
leading figures concerned with combating terrorism concluded that
‘[c]ounter terrorism efforts must be compliant with the values that
democracies uphold more broadly, including the rule of law and human
rights’.

So what has all this to do with you as you graduate from the Faculty of Law?
A number of things I think. First, I am sure that most of you care about these
things or you wouldn’t have chosen to study law. I urge you to keep on
caring about them what ever it is that you go on to do as you leave your student
days behind you. Although you will go on to use your qualifications in many
diverse ways, quite a few of you, I suspect, will wish at some time (perhaps
always) to work within agencies or organisations explicitly concerned with
social justice and civil liberties. I commend you on this choice. But many of
you will not seek, or perhaps not find, the opportunity to do this. This does
not mean that you cannot be a human rights practitioner. Within every
organisation, indeed in every life, there are countless opportunities to be a
human rights practitioner – particularly if you carry with you the
authority of being a lawyer.

As we like to say at the Australian Human Rights Commission human rights are
for everyone, everywhere, everyday. Where ever you are you can be concerned
about discrimination and other ways in which individuals are not treated with
respect. You can question judgments based on stereotypes and look yourself to
the qualities and capacities of the individual; you can model leadership that
doesn’t involve bullying; you can speak out against sexual or other
harassment; you can show respect for cultural, religious or other legitimate
difference – and you may well be able to create an expectation that those
around you will do the same. You can examine carefully arguments in favour of
abrogating fundamental rights and freedoms – particularly when those most
affected by the proposed measures are likely to be unpopular minorities or
others whose voices will carry little political weight. You can question
conventional wisdom and do all that you can to keep your mind open to new ideas
– remembering, for example, that it is not so very long ago that almost
no-one questioned the conventional wisdom that it was appropriate for a
woman’s property to pass to her husband on marriage and that women should
not be allowed to vote. It is likely that there are things that are now taken
for granted by the majority of Australians that in the future will look equally
ridiculous.

In short, Iet me express the hope that you will take with you as you leave
this university the idealism and values that have played such an important part
in your lives as students.