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Don Dunstan Oration (2008)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

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Don Dunstan Oration - Opinion piece
Human rights: creating a society we can be proud of

By the Hon, Catherine Branson, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission

Publication: The Advertiser, Page 22 (Fri 28 Nov 2008)


People often ask me why I feel so strongly about human rights. Perhaps it is fate - both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and I were born 60 years ago. But I think it is simpler than that - I want to feel proud of the Australia that I live in.  

When I reflect on Australia's history and society there are many things that I am proud of.

I am proud that Australia was one of the first countries in the world to give women the vote.

I’m proud of the fact that we have a universal health care system.

I’m proud of the fact that our federal government delivered a National Apology to members of the Stolen Generations.

On the other hand, there are certain things I am not proud of.

I’m not proud that we had a White Australia Policy.

I’m not proud of the 17-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

I’m certainly not proud that we locked up behind razor wire children and families who were fleeing persecution.

I don't think many people in Australia are proud of these things.

For me, human rights define the type of society that we all want to live in.

I believe that we all want to live in a society where we can feel safe and protected from violence and harassment no matter who we are. I believe that we all want to live in a society where our children can access appropriate educational opportunities no matter where we live; where our ageing population can get the health care they need. I believe that we all want to live in a society where we can trust our government to make decisions that are correct and fair and we can do something about it if they haven’t.

These are hardly controversial ideas and they are all basic human rights. The Universal Declaration describes them as the right to life, liberty and security; the right to non-discrimination; the right to education and health care; and the right to a remedy for any violation of our rights.

So, from my perspective, human rights are the articulation of the founding principles of a free, fair, safe and democratic society - principles that are so important that we want to live by them in both good times and bad.

I have observed that some people question the importance of human rights and some are downright afraid of the idea of formally protecting human rights in Australian society.

Some of these fears have been expressed in commentary suggesting that human rights are an abstract legal idea reserved for lawyers, judges and the intellectual elite.

I have certainly asked myself whether the language of ‘human rights’ is sometimes expressed too formally. However, I have never thought that human rights were an abstract legal concept. Quite the contrary, for me human rights are about how we live together.

I want to live in a democracy where everyone counts because of who they really are, not because of a label that can be put on them - consumer,  worker,  voter in a marginal electorate.  

I want to live in a society where everyone can take advantage of his or her abilities and where everyone has a real say about the world they live in – be they an Indigenous person, a person of Muslim faith, a person with disability, a parent wanting leave from work to care for a child, a newly arrived refugee, a person in a same-sex relationship, a young person, an elderly person or anyone else.

I know I’m not alone in wanting this kind of world, and the kind of world I am talking about is a world based on human rights.

The federal government's promised consultation into the protection and promotion of human rights is an opportunity to find out what human rights really mean to people in Australia. My Commission and I will be working with the government and public service, business leaders, community organisations, and disadvantaged communities to discuss human rights and how they are relevant to their everyday lives.

Over the next five years of my term as Commission President I want to generate a new and greater understanding of human rights in Australia. I know this won’t be easy.

I will be encouraging strong and passionate leadership from all spheres of government, the community sector and individuals to help create a society where we all treat each other with the respect and dignity we deserve as human beings; to help create an Australia we can all feel part of and proud of. For my time as President at the Australian Human Rights Commission, I can think of no greater goal than that.

See Also

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