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Stand on your rights, or see them trampled (2009)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

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Stand on your rights, or see them trampled

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

Publication: The West Australian, Page 20 (Fri 8 May 2009) and Illawarra Mercury, Page 24 (Wed 18 Mar 2009)

Australia is a great country to live in — for most of us most of the time. We don’t suffer the terrible poverty witnessed in some parts of the world, our judicial system works well by international standards and most of us can vote in elections by secret ballot. Most of us can live pretty safely, say what we like most of the time and, if we are so inclined, practise our faith in peace. Most of us have access to decent education and health services.

So, why should protecting human rights matter to us?

First, all the things we have just described are human rights. So if you think that those things are important, then protecting human rights should be important to you. There could be a time in all our lives when we find that our human rights are at risk of being ignored or worse, abused. So we need a safety net for when things don’t go as they should, when individuals are not treated with respect.

Secondly, it is unfortunately the case that some people are more likely than others to experience human rights problems.

For example:

  • All of us should have access to appropriate education and health and mental health care, no matter where we live — but some of us have better access to good schools, hospitals, doctors and mental health facilities than others.
  • All of us should have water, food and adequate housing — but this can be harder if we live in a remote community, and many homeless Australians don’t have these things.
  • All our children should be safe at school — but children are still bullied.
  • People living in aged-care homes should be treated in a way that respects their dignity — but some of us don’t have a choice about where our elderly relatives end up and often we can’t do much about it if they are poorly treated.
  • Everyone who uses a wheelchair should be able to use public transport and enter the same buildings as everyone else — but lots of buses, railway stations and government buildings are still inaccessible.
  • All of us should be treated with respect by government officials — but sometimes people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds feel that they don’t receive this respect when dealing with public servants and agencies.

We can all think of family members, or other people we know, who have
experienced one or more of the above problems. We know that people living in rural and remote areas are more likely to experience some of these problems — often because only limited services and facilities are available to them.

If you have experienced these or similar situations you have something important to say to the National Human Rights Consultation which comes to WA next week. Human rights matter to us all.

How could human rights be better protected in Australia?

I believe that we need a national human rights Act. Australia is the only Western democracy without a national law protecting human rights. A law of this kind would ensure that our government thinks about human rights whenever it makes a decision about ordinary Australians. It would ensure that the national Parliament considers human rights when it makes laws. Government departments would have to consider human rights when developing policies. Agencies such as Centrelink and Medicare would have to think about human rights whenever they deal with members of the public.

A human rights Act would also help all Australians become more aware of their rights and of their obligation to respect the rights of others. It would help to build a culture of respect for human rights in Australia. It would help build the kind of Australia we all want to live in — a respectful, tolerant and inclusive society. A society where human dignity matters.

  • The Perth Consultation on Human Rights will be held on Tuesday from 12pm-2pm and again from 6pm-8pm at the Duxton Hotel, 1 St Georges Terrace, Perth.
  • There is a 200-person capacity. For details on this and other WA consultations and to register for consultation roundtables go to

For information on human rights or help in contributing to the national consultation, go to the Australian Human Rights Commission website at

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