2009 Human Rights Day Oration

The Hon Catherine Branson QC
President, Australian Human Rights Commission

Human Rights Medals and Awards, Sydney

10 December 2009

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal peoples of the Eora nation, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

May I also acknowledge the Honourable Robert McClelland MP, federal Attorney-General; Karen Curtis, Federal Privacy Commissioner; John Corcoran, President of the Law Council of Australia; Kieren Fitzpatrick of the Asia Pacific Forum for National Human Rights Institutions; Sue Conde, President of UNIFEM Australia; Andrew Metcalfe, Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship; and members of the family of the late Tony Fitzgerald (the former Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commissioner); Award nominees and recipients and other distinguished guests.

I would also like to thank our sponsors and their representatives here today – LexisNexis, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Law Council of Australia, iHR Australia, The Co-op Bookshop, Vibe Australia and Trophyland.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is proud to host the National Human Rights Awards, on what is celebrated globally as International Human Rights Day.

On Human Rights Day last year we welcomed the announcement by the Attorney-General of the National Human Rights Consultation. Twelve months later we acknowledge the completion of the most successful federal public consultation process ever held in Australia.

The National Consultation was broad and far-reaching. Many thousands of people throughout Australia made it clear that they think human rights matter. Organisations representing hundreds of thousands of people echoed this message.

Consistently, repeatedly, the National Consultation heard that people throughout Australia think that human rights matter, and that we can do a better job of protecting them.

This was a vibrant exercise of participative democracy – it has been a privilege to have shared this experience in my first year as President of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

It is right that our community should be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable amongst us. Many of you work steadfastly to improve the lives of those experiencing significant disadvantage. Many of you, in print, on radio and in film, have documented the stories of vulnerable Australians so that we are all reminded of our responsibility to create a fair Australia where the inherent dignity of all people is respected. Today with our Awards we celebrate your inspiring contributions – always a humbling experience.

Daily, many of you confront the reality that human rights are not currently adequately protected in Australia.
The report of the National Human Rights Consultation has recognised this reality and provided a compelling case for change.

The Consultation Committee’s key recommendations – for a national human rights education program and a federal Human Rights Act – identify the way forward if we are to build a human rights culture in our country.

Australia will be a fairer, more inclusive and more accepting nation if, as a Human Rights Act would require, our decision-makers always consider the fundamental human rights of those affected by their decisions.

And Australia will be a fairer, more inclusive and more accepting if we all better understand our human rights and our responsibilities towards others.

The great challenge for the Australian Government arising from the National Consultation will be to set a path for determined action. We know that not everything can be done immediately. The National Consultation raised many important issues. However, a commitment to improving human rights protections will be most effective if there is a clear time frame for action and a process for reflecting on progress made.

Of course the challenge of the National Consultation is not only for the Australian Government. It is for all of us. Wherever we are situated, whatever we do, we should constantly ask ourselves how we can work towards a fairer, more accepting, more inclusive community. Progress towards this kind of community has been made in the significant human rights achievements of 2009. These achievements have laid the groundwork for great positive change.

This year we saw the Australian Government’s statement of support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; the adoption of the National Close the Gap Strategy; and confirmation of support for a new National Indigenous Representative Body. Our national challenge is to ensure that the gap begins to close and that there is effective engagement with Indigenous peoples.

This year we saw the beginning of the development of a National Action Plan on Disability; ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Disability Convention; and significant progress made towards finalising Access to Premises Standards. Our ongoing challenge is to ensure that national planning makes a real improvement in the lives of people with a disability in Australia.

This year we saw the announcement of a new national paid parental leave scheme. This year was also the 25th Anniversary of the Sex Discrimination Act, during the life of which we have seen significant changes in community attitudes towards women. We look forward to the positive impact of paid parental leave, and continued efforts to ensure that gender equality becomes a reality for all.

The Commission will continue to work to achieve positive lasting change in these and other important areas that touch on the fundamental human rights of many people in Australia.

We have much to celebrate. We have significant challenges, and much hard work remaining.

The Commission stands ready to work with the Government and with civil society to convert the outcomes of the National Consultation into better human rights protection for the next generation of Australians.

I look forward to continuing to work with you all on these important challenges.

Before I conclude, there is something else of importance that I wish to say.

It is a mixed blessing for the Commission that our leadership is renewed from time to time by government appointments. In January, we will say goodbye to Commissioner Tom Calma. For five and a half years Tom has served with great dedication as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and for most of the period as Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner.

It is not easy for me to express the magnitude of the contribution that Tom has made to the Commission and to the protection of human rights in Australia. Let me cite just two things that will sit as part of Tom’s legacy from his time at the Commission: the Close the Gap campaign and the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. It is unlikely that either would exist without him.

Tom, on this day of celebration let me acknowledge your great contribution to the Commission and to Australia. I am sure that everyone will join with me in wishing you, Heather, Grace, Thom and Alice the very best for life beyond the Commission.