Human Rights Awards Keynote
Speech delivered by Commission President, Prof. Rosalind Croucher AM, at the Human Rights Awards, held at the Fullerton Hotel, Sydney.
Check Against Delivery
Thank you for that warm welcome to country.
I pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation—the traditional custodians of this land—to their elders, past and present, and to the future generations who continue in the footprints of those who have come before.
I acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander guests joining us here today.
It is a great privilege for me, as President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, to welcome each and every one of you to today’s event—our 32nd Human Rights Awards—where we celebrate the extraordinary achievements of our fellow Australians.
A particularly warm welcome to our finalists, their families and friends.
Some of our finalists have overcome adversity or taken a stand in the face of prejudice. Others have exposed harmful practices. Others still, have led enduring change. All have strived for fairer and more inclusive communities.
You have all achieved remarkable things—and we salute you!
We live in a world that is rapidly changing. New technologies offer previously unimaginable benefits to society—and unprecedented challenges.
The ‘robodebt’ scandal revealed how easily the most vulnerable members of our society can be harmed by new technologies.
And I, like you, am alarmed that algorithms allow the manipulation of social media audiences to the benefit of the platform and those who seek to undermine our democracy.
And we live in uncertain, even disturbing, times.
The April attacks on mosques in Christchurch were shocking examples of extremism and anti-Muslim sentiment generating an outpouring of compassion.
Extraordinary police raids on journalists and the significant public backlash demonstrated both the fragility—and preciousness—of freedom of the press and the public’s right to know.
Such issues pull at the seams of a cohesive society.
But on days like today, even when we feel the challenges are great, we should remember that what is common to our humanity is even greater.
Surely compassion is central to our national identity?
Respect and dignity similarly so.
We do expect that everyone will get a ‘fair go’, and that we can all have our say.
And Australians like to ‘keep the bastards honest’, as Don Chipp famously said, by ensuring people in authority are accountable for their actions.
These are all values that we hold dear as a nation.
And they are—in essence—a reflection of human rights standards and democratic freedoms.
At last year’s Awards, I announced that we would embark upon a National Conversation on Human Rights, to reimagine how we value and respect human rights, asking what kind of Australia do we want to live in?
During the year, we set out our approach in an Issues Paper and three Discussion Papers, looking at how our existing discrimination laws could be made more effective, and what new protections we might need? What domestic mechanisms are needed to ensure accountability for our human rights commitments to the world? And how to build a positive framing of human rights in law, policy and practice.
A significant highlight of the year was our Free and Equal conference in Sydney in October, with a visit to Australia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dr Michelle Bachelet.
The conference and the roundtables that we hosted during her visit were an opportunity to focus on a shared vision for human rights reform into the future. As Dr Bachelet urged, we should apply ‘strategic optimism’ to reach our goals.
Through our conversations, we have learnt that Australians value their rights—
To freedom of expression.
To a fair trial.
To equality before the law.
And to freedom from discrimination.
These are all values that we hold dear as Australians.
And yet we have not effectively embedded them into our laws and practices—especially at the Commonwealth level.
Our conversations have also prompted questions for our politicians. Do they protect our rights? Do they restrict them? And if so, how do they justify this to us, the electors?
We are talking about human rights and freedoms in a forward, future-building way—with ‘strategic optimism’—where our focus is aspirational and positive.
There is encouraging work taking place in front of us—
on our TV screens and on twitter feeds,
in protests and vigils,
through the work of inquiries and roundtables, and
by people working late into the night gathering evidence and crafting reports and recommendations for change.
The issues involved are far-ranging—the environmental, regional inequality, racism, deaths in custody, and demands that more be done to counter historical injustices to break cycles of inter-generational trauma.
We will focus on some of these key themes next year—
How to counter the rising tide of online hate speech and extremism.
The environment and human rights—water, food, clean air—and the sustainability of regional Australia.
Democracy. People and communities are entitled to speak up for what they believe in and to congregate in public spaces to express their views. To hold those responsible to account. And to call out injustice where they see it. Our democracy is precious. We want to see people engaged in civic life, not silenced.
It is frightening to see that the annual CIVICUS Monitor, which assesses how well freedoms are protected, has downgraded Australia from “open” to a country where civil space has contracted, citing new laws that restrict peaceful assembly, expand government surveillance, and allow raids on media organisations.
These issues are all connected.
But I have faith in human rights to help us solve problems. A belief in our shared humanity—the essential goodness in each of us.
Most of all, I see in the actions of our young people, in their dedication to this nation and the planet, a better future for us all.
Next year, we will bring our project to fruition. We release a draft national reform agenda and seek public comment before finalising it in a report to the federal Parliament in the second half of 2020.
Human rights matter.
A society that values human rights is a society that values its people.
And a society that values its people, is worth fighting for.
So, let us celebrate the achievements of the year in our Human Rights Awards and draw on the inspiring actions and examples of our finalists, so that tomorrow we may continue to turn our aspirations and hopes into reality.