ACFID Awards Night Presentation

By Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM, Australian Human Rights Commissioner and Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Canberra Friday 7 October 2005


I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand, and pay my respects to their elders both past and present.

I make this statement at any function where I speak in order to:

  • pay my respects to the oldest continuous culture in the world;
  • stress that Australia is a diverse society and that the First Australians are an important part of this diversity; and
  • to demonstrate that we aspire to a just and fair Australia for all.

President, Gaye Hart and other Executive Committee members, Paul O"Callaghan, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.


I would like to commence my brief remarks tonight by acknowledging the success of the member organizations of ACFID. Clearly any organization whose constituent members in 2004 raised $487.4 million, or around 70%, annually of their funds, from the public with only about 14% coming from the government via AusAID is a very effective one indeed. This statistic is also vitally important when one considers the ramifications of how best to engage in constructive policy dialogue with federal governments of any political persuasion.


As I understand the position, there are a couple of critical policy issues which are currently exercising your minds mightily. One is the White Paper Process, initiated by the government as it seeks input on ideas and program delivery suggestions for the overseas aid development program. The other is the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the extent to which Australia"s stated commitment to those goals are being actualized.

It appears to me that, for one reason or another, the politics of international aid has never been, shall we say "as interesting" - as in the old Chinese proverb "may you live in interesting times" as is currently the case.

What with Australia"s active participation in the "Coalition of the Willing"; the United Nations" processes in the "food for oil" program, under heavy adverse scrutiny; the attempts at UN committee reform, especially the Human Rights Committee; not to mention our usual delicate relations with Indonesia, PNG et al - there is certainly a lot of scope for robust debate.


The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission shares with you that dynamic policy tension that arises periodically between ourselves and the government. Obviously as a statutorily independent human rights watchdog, with an Act of Parliament to guide us, the Commission is required to pursue its goals as it sees fit. On the other hand, in order for us to maintain a certain capacity to influence government policy we must be very level-headed about which particular issues we choose to pursue very hard and when. So how does one strike this balance?


Personally, in my 5 years as Human Rights Commissioner that question was never more relevant than when I decided it was necessary for the Commission to commence a large scale national inquiry into whether Australia"s mandatory immigration detention of children was compliant with its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

At the time the Government was riding high in the polls post Tampa and post election win. The mandatory immigration detention policy had support from both the major parties and the Minister for Immigration was sure that the policy settings were absolutely spot on. So on the surface of it, this had all the hallmarks of a difficult decision for me to make. And yet in a funny sort of way, it was quite easy - because I knew that it was a major human rights issue and accordingly, if my position was going to remain relevant, it was the sort of Inquiry I had to undertake.

Now in saying the decision was easy to make, please do not misunderstand that to mean that I did not think it would be contentious from the government"s perspective. I knew it would be and events bore me out on that score, although the Department of Immigration did nothing to actively frustrate the Inquiry"s processes. And as you all know, ultimately the cumulative effect of my Inquiry, in combination with many of the other constituent parts of "civil society" and Palmer/Petro Georgiou, eventually combined to bring about substantial changes to the way immigration policy is applied to children and families.

My take on this therefore, from both our perspectives, is that the government has its job to do and we have ours. When it is an issue that you have no doubt you must pursue in a particular way, then you must proceed in that fashion, no matter what the counter policy arguments from the government. Naturally you will do the right thing and listen to the government"s arguments, but usually, if your original commitment to a particular course of action was strongly held, you will still proceed as planned.  


In my time as HR Commissioner, when dealing with major issues, I have been guided by the following 3 principles:

  1. Define the key issue(s). At all times commonsense, consensus and balance were my defining parameters.
  2. I have always tried to engage with and communicate to, as many members of the Australian community as possible, rather than solely aiming my efforts at the political process. My view is that it is in changing community attitudes, that we more effectively achieve political policy shifts, rather than the other way around.

    I have also found the Inquiry process to be an effective medium for dialogue with the broader community. I am reinforced in my belief in this strategy by my view that Australian "civil society" is one of the most effective in the world.

  3. Always, and I mean always keep your lines of communication open with the government and NEVER personalize the issues that separate your respective positions.


The more difficult decisions for our respective organizations are those where the subject matter is on the margin. In other words while there are good policy reasons to support a particular course of action that you may favor, there are equally valid counter arguments the government can bring to bear. Frankly, in those situations I would be more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to the government. I would rather "keep my powder dry" for the big issues where I believe there is no choice, than to fritter away time and energy on arguing the toss, over something that only the passage of time will reveal who was more right than wrong.


At the conclusion of this most recent United Nations "World Summit" the Prime Minister announced that it was Australia"s goal to increase its overseas aid allocation to about A$4 billion a year by 2010. Such an increase would represent a doubling of Australia"s overseas aid from 2004 levels.

I note that your "Make Poverty History" press release welcomed this announcement, saying that it represented good news for the two thirds of the world"s poor that lived in our region of the Asia-Pacific. But it tempered this enthusiasm by stating that this would still leave Australia well short of the previously agreed goal of 0.5% of gross national income by 2010. On the current timetable announced by the Prime Minister, Australia will slip to 18 out of 22 OECD countries, despite the recently announced doubling.

Obviously ACFID like HREOC faces a continuation of its dynamic and challenging interaction with the government on this important issue. My closing advice on this score is that if boosting Australia"s aid to the world"s poor to 0.5% of gross national income by 2010 is your equivalent of my children in immigration inquiry, then you must justify your continued existence by bending all your efforts to achieving that end.

Returning briefly to my "Three Rules", your collective fundraising efforts indicate that you enjoy a very substantial level of broad-based community access. Perhaps now is the time to consider educating that support base so that you can bring to bear long term pressure for policy change? Only you can decide if it is that sort of "children in detention issue". If it is, then like me, your way forward just became a lot clearer!  


But enough of the serious side of our respective jobs. Tonight is a celebration and I am delighted ACFID and HREOC share another common issue apart from the periodic challenge of dealing with government policy. And of course here I"m referring to our shared history of having the late Sir Ron Wilson as President of our respective organizations. As the Commission press release said on the occasion of his death: "Sir Ron gained the respect, admiration and love of the Commission"s staff for his humility, dignity, integrity and fine intellect.

He was indeed, a very humble man, despite scaling the heights that he did. He remained very much in touch with the concerns and needs of ordinary people. I feel very honored to be standing here tonight representing HREOC in the inaugural presentation of this award, now re-named in his honour.