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Rights for All: A human rights perspective on regional development: Chris Sidoti (1999)

Rights and Freedoms

Rights for All: A human
rights perspective on regional development

Address to Planning in
the Hothouse
, 27th National Congress by Chris Sidoti, Human Rights
Commissioner, Darwin, September 1999

I would like to thank
the Royal Australian Planning Institute for inviting me to speak today
at Planning in the Hothouse and in particular on this panel, 'Forgotten

As Human Rights Commissioner
much of my work involves bringing to the attention of the government and
the wider community, human rights violations against some of the most
disadvantaged people in Australia. Some of these people, and some of these
communities, are indeed 'forgotten' - they are out of the public eye and
neglected by government and government services. Others have some visibility
but struggle hard to be heard in a climate of competing interests - and
yet their needs are often misunderstood, neglected or re-prioritised arbitrarily
according to wider political and economic considerations.

Today I will speak
about rural and remote communities as 'forgotten' and the impact of this
'forgetting' on their basic human rights.

Rural and remote
communities across Australia are by no means homogenous - indeed there
are great differences by state and territory, size of town and environment.
However, they have in common not only geographical isolation but also
a strong sense of rural identity. This identity is increasingly enhanced
by the very experience of being 'forgotten' by government and Australian

Within the broader
category of rural and remote Australia which I will speak about today,
there are many communities - most notably Indigenous communities - that
are doubly isolated and 'forgotten' by government policy. It is impossible
to speak of the human rights of rural people without speaking of the needs
of Indigenous communities in rural and remote Australia, for Indigenous
people in rural and remote Australia continue to suffer the greatest lack
of basic human rights in the areas of employment, health, housing and

Over the last 18
months I have travelled to around 50 regional, rural and remote communities,
in every State and Territory. Listening to people speak of their lives
I have become convinced that the human rights of rural and remote Australians
have been significantly neglected compared to urban Australians. Planners
have important contributions to make in our national responses to this
human rights neglect.

Some rural and remote
communities may be depressed and down but they are not out. They have
energy, ideas and many examples of how to create a functioning community
and promote their human rights. This energy and commitment needs to be
the basis of any regional development plans.

What are basic human

Human rights belong
to every person by virtue of birth. It does not matter where you live,
or who you are, human rights are ours to be enjoyed simply by reason of
our common humanity and innate dignity as human beings. They are not only
for majority groups or for minority groups but for everyone equally and
without discrimination.

Human rights are
also 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.

Most people are aware
of their civil and political rights, for example the right to freedom
of expression and the right to vote. These are of course fundamental human
rights which are set down in international treaties, for example the Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights

But matters relating
to people's social, economic and material well-being are equally matters
of human rights. These 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 by governments because they raise issues of public welfare
and public spending. In a climate of fiscal restraint governments are
reluctant 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, Australian
governments have made solemn promises to the Australian people that oblige
them to uphold these rights and ensure that the basic needs of every person
are satisfied.

One of the most important
human rights treaties is the International Covenant on Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights
. Australia is a party to this treaty. It is perhaps
not as well known as the International Covenant on Civil and Political
but it is no less important.

These two sets of
rights are not mutually exclusive. They are most definitely linked. For
example, a society that promotes and respects individual rights is more
likely to be well placed to enjoy economic growth and good standards of
living. At the same time, where there is economic inequality and poverty,
where health is neglected and education denied, civil and political rights
often suffer.

Many will argue that
these rights - social, economic and cultural - are difficult to measure
or attain, as circumstances differ so substantially from country to country.
Economic inequality has not been solved anywhere to date. Unlike the right
to vote, it can appear impossible for governments to guarantee the right
to work. Consistently high unemployment, especially in rural Australia,
despite good intentions of governments at every level, has taught us that
there is no quick solution to extending these rights to everyone.

However, the International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
is a means of getting
governments to measure their achievements or failures and to commit to
progressively attaining realisable goals. Unlike the Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights
, it commits each state party to achieving the
rights progressively, but this does not mean that they are not achievable.
And importantly, governments must guarantee that these rights are protected
and enjoyed without discrimination of any kind.

Are these rights
being neglected in rural and remote Australia?

As I have mentioned,
over the last 18 months I have travelled to over 50 communities in rural
and remote Australia as part of Human Rights Commission's Bush Talks
consultations. These consultations involved both listening and talking
to communities about their human rights concerns. Our discussions confirmed
what many people in the country had been aware of for several years. 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 life of many rural, regional and remote
towns has been slowly pared away. 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.1

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 the 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.2

There are many reasons
for this decline and they may differ in each region. They include the
impact of globalisation and deregulation and the rationalisation of government
services and private sector infrastructure. I will not discuss these today.
However, the impact of these changes are that, in terms of basic economic,
social and cultural rights, the country is generally coming off second
best to the city.

Country Australians
do not enjoy

  • the right to education
  • the right to the
    highest attainable standard of health
  • the right to an
    adequate standard of living
  • the right to take
    part in cultural life
  • the right to enjoy
    the benefits of scientific progress
  • the right to access
    to employment opportunities

on an equal basis
or, in some cases, at all.

I will describe to
you in more detail what we have been told by rural Australia about some
of these rights.


The right to education
is set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
(ICESCR 1966) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child
(1989). This right must be ensured to all without discrimination of any

Although the right
to primary and secondary education is guaranteed, the Bush Talks
consultations found that in many rural and remote areas of Australia there
are significant impediments to children's access to educational and cultural
opportunities. In response to this, the Commission initiated a National
Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education in February this year. This has
given us the opportunity to hear from a large number of teachers, parents,
students and community members about education in their communities.

We heard that children
in remote and rural Australia are less likely to complete their education
than children in regional and urban centres. We also heard that some of
the main problems are the cost of schooling and the lack of income support
for families.

Many rural and remote
students need to travel long distances to school. While this is an element
of life in the country, for children this can mean tiring journeys. It
can have a serious impact on their access to schooling. Many remote areas
do not have public transport and are situated a long distance from a school
bus. This can mean extra costs and time for parents in transporting their
children to school. This can even affect access to education.

For example, the
children of a family living 48km from Scone in NSW must leave home at
7.15am, be transported 13 km to the bus stop and then catch the bus to
school. They don't get home until 5.10pm. This is a very long day, especially
for young children. Bush Talks was told that because of this children
do not attend pre-school and are kept back from primary school until they
are 6 (Scone NSW, November 1998).

Although distance
education reaches isolated children and has some very positive results
for many students, it is not appropriate for every child and every family.
It also needs to be adequately resourced to address the difficulties of
teaching without face to face contact and the lack of technological infrastructure
in many rural and remote areas.

Many students told
us of a lack of curriculum choice and of sporting and cultural opportunities.
In the Warmun community, for example, in the East Kimberley, students
may have to travel hours to compete in a sports event. When asked what
they wanted, one Year 8 student at Warmun said he would like something
as simple as goal posts for the school field. These are things are taken
for granted by urban students.

Lack of curriculum
choice can be a major reason for declining enrolments in secondary years
of rural schools. Families feel as if they have no other choice but to
send their child away to boarding school, or to move to another town,
to give their child the same opportunities as children in urban areas.
In some places on the Eyre Peninsula in SA we were told that students
who want to study music have no choice but do it by distance education.
One student found it impossible to study her instrument over the phone
and eventually gave up her study, although she was talented and would
have pursued this at the tertiary level.

The right to education
is suffering most seriously in rural and remote Indigenous communities.

Retention rates and
participation rates are well below that of non-Indigenous students. The
apparent retention rates of full-time Indigenous students in Year 11 are
as low as 47%, compared to non-Indigenous students at 83%.3
In rural WA only 16% of Indigenous students in country areas complete
Year 12.

In the Northern Territory
a significant number of students are not participating in education. The
majority of these students are Indigenous students in remote communities.
The participation rate of Indigenous students for the compulsory schooling
years (4 to 14) is 87.1% for males and 99.6% for females. However, these
figures decline to 39.7% for females and 28.2% for males in the 15 to
19 age group (submission from the NT Education Department). Actual daily
attendance at school is likely to be much lower than this, as participation
rates relate to enrolment only.

Because of distance
some remote Indigenous children are unable to access primary school. Other
large Indigenous communities have no secondary school.

There is
a primary school in Papunya, but throughout the whole of Papunya region
there are no secondary education facilities. Students who have completed
primary school therefore have to move to Alice Springs to further their
education. This lack of accessible secondary education facilities is reflected
in the fact that only 1% of Indigenous people in the region aged 15 years
and over participate in secondary education. There is a strong wish for
a regional high school in Papunya but this proposal has not been well
received at a government level so far (Papunya NT, October 1998).

We were told in many
Aboriginal communities in NT that their children simply have no real right
to secondary education.

The Inquiry has also
heard from many people in rural and remote communities who are critical
of the cultural appropriateness and relevance of education for Indigenous
studies. Employing Aboriginal teachers and workers in schools is vital
to supporting Indigenous students through the schooling system. And yet
the Inquiry has heard many times of inadequate numbers of Aboriginal teachers
and Aboriginal workers in rural and remote schools.

There is no doubt
that culturally inappropriate or irrelevant education has a major impact
on educational outcomes. The Convention on the Rights of the Child,
ratified by Australia, recognises the right of Indigenous and minority
children to access education which ensures their right to enjoy their
culture, profess and practise their religions and use their own languages.

Another serious issue
raised in the Inquiry is the lack of support in rural and remote areas
for children with special needs such as a physical or learning disability.
Without adequate special education teaching support in rural and remote
areas, families with children with a disability are forced to travel long
distances to access appropriate education or send their child away or
move the family to an urban centre - or deprive their child of education.


Health was the other
major issue raised in Bush Talks consultations. The right to the
highest attainable standard of health is set out in both the ICESCR and
the CROC.

Death rates from
all causes are higher in rural and remote areas than in capital cities.
Rural Indigenous people die on average 15 to 20 years earlier than their
fellow Australians. Rural Australians are more likely to suffer coronary
heart disease, asthma and diabetes than city dwellers. Deaths of males
from road accidents are twice the rate in remote areas than in capital
cities.4 And suicide, especially of young males, seems endemic
in many communities. Rural male youth suicide rates have increased by
350% over the last 20 years.

Not surprisingly,
while the level of health need increases, the level of health care drops
dramatically as we move from capital city to regional city to a rural
or remote area. Yet instead of increasing services, it seems that many
are being pared away.

In one town in south
western NSW I was told about a woman who collapsed in a supermarket. When
the ambulance was called the paramedic decided she had to be taken to
hospital and so asked bystanders whether someone could drive the ambulance
while he travelled in the back to look after the patient.

The shortage of GPs
in the bush is well-known and receives extensive media coverage. This
is, however, only one part of the problem. In some towns we visited not
one GP would bulk bill, in some instances not even for health care card
holders, effectively leaving poorer people without access to medical care
at all. And the shortage of GPs is only one part of the personnel problem:
there are also shortages of nurses, dentists, physiotherapists, specialists
and other health professionals.

Whatever indicator
you choose, the situation of Aboriginal people is even worse that that
of any other Australians. For Aboriginal Australians

  • life expectancy
    is 20 years less than for non-Aboriginal Australians
  • Aboriginal boys
    born today have only a 45 per cent chance of living to age 65 (85 per
    cent for non-Aboriginal boys) and Aboriginal girls have a 54 per cent
    chance of living to age 65 (89 per cent for non-Aboriginal girls)
  • although over
    the last forty years the Aboriginal infant mortality rate has declined,
    it is still over three times the national average; over the same period,
    adult mortality in the Aboriginal population has increased (submission
    from the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress).

And Indigenous people
in remote areas have it hardest of all.

The lack of accessible
dialysis for kidney disease among Indigenous people is deplorable. Wongai
residents of the Ngaanyatjara Lands and other people in the Central Desert
region of WA must go to Kalgoorlie or Perth for dialysis. In the NT they
must go to Darwin or Alice Springs. This means that they have to be separated
from their traditional lands and community support.

Being separated from
family, community and traditional lands can be devastating for rural Aboriginal
people. One person described it as follows:

People can't
bear to be away from their land and family and some have chosen to return
home. It really breaks a Wongai's heart when he has to go away. But without
dialysis, patients will die (Kalgoorlie WA, August 1998).

And many choose to
die rather than leaving family, community and land. And when they do go,
they see it as a life sentence, for they can never come back except to
die. Support in the towns for those on dialysis is almost non-existent.
Many live in the riverbeds or, if they are given accommodation, their
families who accompany or visit them are not.

I want to emphasise
that many of the health problems which people told us about were not 'luxury'
items or complaints about not having a wide range of choices. People are
talking about access to basic standard health care - a doctor, a dentist,
someone to talk to if contemplating suicide. Without access to these services
in a rural community lives are at risk and quality of life is seriously
threatened. Without access to these services people will be forced to
leave their communities and this will only exacerbate the problems being
faced by those who remain.

Other services

Besides health and
education, there were many more ways in which the living standards of
rural Australians are below national standards.

Affecting equity
of access to health and education services are infrastructure deficiencies
such as inadequate postal and telecommunications services, poor roads,
high fuel prices, non-existent public transport, or, where it does exist,
the absence of wheelchair-accessible public transport. These especially
affect the elderly in rural and remote areas.

There are other fundamental
services which some Australian communities still lack, such as a safe
and reliable water supply, safe and affordable housing and affordable
nutritious food. The relationship between these fundamental services and
overall health and well-being is illustrated in a comment made by a Bush
participant in Alice Springs

ear disease, due to unsatisfactory hygiene and malnutrition, can result
in poor hearing and sometimes deafness. This is a big problem, especially
for young Aboriginal people throughout the Northern Territory. The fact
is when you can't hear at school, it is incredibly boring so you stop
going and when you don't go to school, you have all day in front of you
and you've got to do something! That's when you get into trouble, sniff
petrol, start stealing things and with the mandatory sentencing you end
up going to jail. All this is because of the insufficient access to clean
water and proper food (Alice Springs NT, October 1998).

The right of access
to employment opportunities is perhaps the most fundamental building block
to regional development. Unemployment and socio-economic disadvantage
is a major cause of poor rural health experiences and has a contributing
effect on all the other rights I have touched on today. The right of access
to employment opportunities is set out in the International Covenant
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
and the International Labour
Organisation Convention 111.

The National Rural
Health Alliance Blueprint for Rural Development singles out employment
as one of the most important things that need to be changed to avert the
'familiar downward spiral'. The Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission
has recently launched an excellent discussion paper on regional unemployment,
calling for a national strategy of regional economic and employment development.5
It points out the persistence of levels of unemployment in many regional
communities, which are many times the national average.

Prioritising human
rights in planning

Bush Talks
teaches us that the basic human rights I have outlined - to education,
health, to work - do not exist in isolation. They are connected to each
other and to all elements that make up a decent quality of life.

The right to education,
for example, is worth upholding not simply because it is an internationally
recognised human right. It is the basic building block for economic, social
and political development. Children in rural areas need to have an equal
education to children in urban areas so that they have the same economic
opportunities. They may even have a greater need for a quality education,
as they will need greater creativity and knowledge to cope with the challenge
of unemployment and poverty facing rural Australia.

But education is
not only about economic opportunities - it builds community and identity,
provides students with the language tools to understand their own cultures
and to respect and understand others who share their community. It gives
them the tools to engage with the rest of Australia, to speak to language
of the bureaucrats and work to improve life in their community.

People in rural communities
are well aware of this interconnectedness. It stares them in the face
each day. In a small community small changes can have a ripple effect.
Contradictions of government policy, social and economic change and the
economically rational decisions of public and private sector leaders and
managers all wreak havoc in perfect microcosm.

We were told numerous
times of the potential effects of a business or service leaving a small
country town. It may have an impact on the numbers of school teachers,
local employment, local income and wealth and of course the morale of
the community.

You cannot take away
one service in a small rural community without it having an effect on
the most basic human rights of the residents.

The implications
of this for regional planning are clear and obvious. Human rights are
as much a part of regional development as financial investment. They are
as much a part of planning as are physical and environmental concerns.
I am not only saying they should be as much a part - I am saying
they inescapably are as much a part of regional development. Unless
human rights are consciously promoted in regional development, they will
be unconsciously violated.

Only when we start
to give these fundamental building blocks of community well-being community
well-being the same priority as economic issues will we avert the downward
spiral of many regions and communities.

Putting rural communities
in the picture

I have not attempted
here to propose any sort of plan to meet the needs of all rural communities.
My travels around the country have taught me that no two country towns
or communities are the same. However, a few points made to me by rural
communities again and again over the past months have some direct relevance
for how we might begin to plan for rural areas.

The first is that
communities need to be involved at all levels of planning for their own
futures. This may seem obvious, but too often rural communities feel that
they have been left out of the loop in decisions which directly affect
them. For example, rural groups have been calling for rural impact assessments
to be done on all legislation and policy changes for years now. Governments
have begun to hear this cry, for sound political reasons: the bush is
punishing political parties. Just look at the Queensland state election
last June or NSW in March or Victoria last weekend. And in the federal
election last October, Peter Andren, the independent in the Bathurst-Orange
area of NSW, received the highest two-party preferred vote in the country.
However, there is a long way to go before rural Australia feels that this
is more than tokenism. Any new ways of planning for regional development
need to be owned and operated by local people.

There is certainly
a lot of energy in rural and remote Australia that could be harnessed
for change.

In Bush Talks
we came across many communities willing to organise the meetings, were
concerned about their communities and wanted to be involved in finding

There are remarkable
individuals who welcome the blow-ins from out of town. We have rung people
up to let them know we are thinking about coming to a small town and they
immediately say 'wonderful - we have lots to tell you'. These are people
who love their small rural towns and communities, who, although saddened
at the changes that may have happened, and often seriously considering
leaving town, are happy with where they live and are willing to fight
to maintain the community.

They told us about
many good initiatives undertaken by their communities to try to address
some of the problems of isolation or declining services. People expressed
interest in other communities and what they did and how they too could
do the same, whether it be in health, the local school, youth culture
and support or employment opportunities.

There is a willingness
to work co-operatively and learn from other rural and remote communities,
contrary to the stereotype of parochialism in rural areas. They want to
see their regions develop, they want a confidence-building, integrated
approach to planning an development and they want to be involved - to
make the key decisions.

However, the second
point it is important to make is that, although small rural communities
can be resilient and energetic, governments cannot absolve themselves
of responsibility for them. Regions need participation, transparency and
flexibility in decisions about priorities and plans for change but they
also need outside assistance and resources to turn plans into realities.
Rural communities pay taxes - they are entitled to as much support as
urban communities.

As the Australian
Catholic Social Welfare Commission pointed out in its discussion paper,
we need to move beyond the principle of 'do-it-yourself', which has the
danger of being an excuse to abandon those most in need. That Commission
has pointed out that we need to foster

more holistic
and inclusive forms of regional development that recognise the national
community's collective responsibility to share the opportunities, costs
and benefits of economic reform and the role of governments to promote
this interdependence through socially responsible and equitable policies.6

People in rural and
remote Australia know that this responsibility is about more than national
economic policies. I will leave you with one succinct comment to Bush
from a person in Molong NSW.

must acknowledge the fact that people live in rural communities and need
to be recognised as being a part of society rather than part of an economy
(submission from the Highway Safety Action Group of NSW).

We must assert anew
that the economy exists to serve our society rather than our society being
enslaved by economic ideologies. We must insist that the human rights
of people in rural and remote communities are not forgotten but respected,
protected and promoted.


1 Australian
Bureau of Statistics, Yearbook of Australia, 1997, p.79.

2 The Country Web; a newsletter for rural women and their
, 'Speaking personally', Marion Palmer, Jerilderie, No.16,
Winter 1998, p.4.

3 MCEETYA, National Reporting on Schooling in Australia,
1996, page 76.

4 Proceedings of the National Rural Public Health Forum, 12-15
October 1997.

5 Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission, 'Regional
Unemployment and the Indirect Employer: Beyond a Principle of Self-Reliance',
Common Wealth, August 1999, Vol. 7, No. 2.

6 Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission, page 12.

updated 1 December 2001