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Commissioners' statements - Annual Report 2009-2010: Australian Human Rights Commission

Commissioners’ statements

Mick Gooda
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Last year, when I announced the priorities for my term I said that, as a nation, we needed to develop stronger and deeper relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the Australia, between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and all levels of government, and between ourselves as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

We’re not there yet by a long shot, but some fundamental movement on a number of fronts during the past year gives me confidence and optimism about a reinvigorated commitment to improve these relationships.

Our new national representative body, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, is now up and running with our first elected co-chairs.

The nation has embarked on a critical conversation that goes to the heart of the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the rest of Australia; recognition of Australia’s First Peoples in the Australian Constitution. For the first time in our history, recognising Australia’s First Peoples in our nation’s founding document might be closer than ever before.

Australia’s appearance before the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, led to a number of recommendations pertaining to the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and included a call for the government to give full effect to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Australian laws and policies.

A Minister for Indigenous Health was appointed and the Close the Gap Health Equality campaign had its fifth birthday.

All of this is exciting and all of it is necessary. But we must remind ourselves that sustainable improvements in life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will take a generation to take effect.

We must find solutions to some of the intractable problems being confronted by our peoples.

While the government has acknowledged the mistakes made with the 2007 imposition of the Northern Territory Emergency Response on 73 prescribed Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must be recognised as key stakeholders in the design and implementation of laws and policies after the intervention comes to its legislative end in August 2012.

It is unacceptable to find, 20 years on from the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison now than when the Commission reported in 1991. While we must continue to focus on alternatives to incarceration, such as the justice reinvestment model, the ongoing injustice around the deaths in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island and Mr Ward in the back of a prison van in the WA Goldfields, must prompt immediate action that prevents future tragedies such as these.

These things should not be happening in the 21st century in Australia. Sustainable improvements in life outcomes for Indigenous Australians must involve a willingness from government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to work hand-in-hand.

Mick Gooda
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Graeme Innes, AM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner

I approach the coming year with a sense of optimism. Some positive achievements have occurred during the year under review, but there is still much left to do if we are to achieve the vision of human rights for everyone, everywhere, every day.

With the commencement of Access to Premises Standards in April, Australians with disability will now be more easily able to access our public buildings, and thus not experience the exclusion of physical barriers to public life. However, the same cannot be said of public transport where - as demonstrated by numerous incidents throughout the year, particularly on airlines - barriers still exist.

The commitment by COAG in January to a national disability strategy, using the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as its foundation, sets out the programme to be followed during the next ten years. It will be important for all of us to ensure that all governments keep the promises made in this strategy.

Thirdly, the achievement of agreements on captioning and audio description in cinemas, and on principles by which houses should be built so that they are liveable for all members of the community – including those who are older or have a disability – are promises of great things to come in the future. As is the work towards the development of a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

In the area of race discrimination, the Government’s announcement of a multicultural policy for Australia is a pleasing recognition of the diversity of Australian society, and the important contribution made by people of many racial or ethnic backgrounds, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Part of this policy is the development of an anti-racism strategy for Australia, and the Commission will be proud to be a leading partner in this work. Research released during the year confirms our concern that racism in Australia is still a problem which needs to be addressed.

The intervention in the Northern Territory has continued, and I am firm in my view that – whilst governments must always take action to protect children and families at risk - it is not necessary to do so by suspending the human rights legislation which protects us all. If we are to prevent such suspension ever occurring again, constitutional change is a critical part of the work needed to repair the damage to communities caused by the intervention.

As our time online increases, cyber racism, much of which is just flavoured cyber bullying, is a problem which has the potential to become more prevalent. The Commission, and others, have begun some positive work in this area. But there is much still to do, including encouraging all members of the community to challenge racism in all of its forms.

The coming year will bring further challenges, and I look forward to contributing to the work of the Commission in meeting them.

Graeme Innes, AM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner

Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination

The 2010-2011 year has been a very significant one for both gender and age discrimination. In May, we saw the federal Parliament pass amendments to both of these discrimination acts, with far reaching implications.

It is very pleasing that the changes to the Age Discrimination Act will soon see the appointment of Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner. This is a tremendous development that places age discrimination on an equal footing with other areas of discrimination.

Of course, this also spells the end of my tenure as Commissioner responsible for age discrimination. During the last year, I released our report on the hidden barriers and discrimination faced by mature age workers and my team and I worked with the consultative forum to advance proposals for a prevalence study and audit of laws. We have also advocated nationally and internationally for the development of a Convention on the Rights of Older People. I have been very proud to work in this field and eagerly anticipate the opportunities a Commissioner will bring.

The amendments also significantly strengthened the Sex Discrimination Act, particularly by prohibiting direct discrimination against male and female employees on the ground of family responsibilities. They also strengthen protections against sexual harassment in workplaces and schools and prohibit sexual harassment conducted by way of new technologies. Breastfeeding has been established as a separate ground of discrimination.

Other advancements have seen real achievement against many of the recommendations in my Gender Equality Blueprint 2010. The 1st of January this year delivered the commencement of two major initiatives. After 30 years, Australia’s first National Paid Parental Leave Scheme began, with the government committing to extend it by an additional two weeks for supporting partners in 2013. The ASX Corporate Governance Reforms also came into play, delivering an increase in the proportion of women on ASX 200 Boards from 8.3 percent in January 2010 to 11.9 in May this year. Also in the area of women’s leadership, I am pleased to report the growth of the male Champions of Change network.

I had immense pleasure in attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women’s 55th session and the launch of UN Women, the United Nations new entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in New York.

In March this year, we saw the launch of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children and the announcement of reforms to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency and its Act. This includes a shift in focus from reporting on workplace programs to reporting on outcomes.

In April, I was asked to lead a Commission review into the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force Academy and the Australian Defence Force. I anticipate releasing the two reports during the next reporting period. I thank my team and Andrea Durback, Deputy Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination