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Sydney Town Hall: Australians of the Year 2017

Rights Rights and Freedoms



Sydney Town Hall: Australians of the Year 2017

It is wonderful to see so many of you here tonight to celebrate these four great  Australians of the year and to learn about their vision for human rights in the future.

Thank you to the Australia Day Council for the chance to speak to you all … for this is my last public speech before stepping down as President of the AHRC and I can think of no better place than the Sydney Town Hall to thank the Australian public for their spirited support for human rights and for the work of the Human Rights Commission.

Ultimately, respect for human rights depends upon you, the people of Sydney and the whole Australian community.

I leave the Commission in the safe hands of my colleagues and staff, including the commissioners for sex, race, children, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, disabilities and general human rights, who are advocating for the rights and freedoms of all Australians.

It has been my true privilege to serve in a national role for human rights. Let me give you some idea of the kinds of things I have been doing.

  • I have seen the best that Australia can be at an aged care home for Aboriginal  stockmen, 3 hours drive out of Katherine on a long dusty red road
  • I have also seen the dark side of our nation visiting Christmas Island three times and Immigration detention centres in Villawood, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide, Darwin, and Brisbane and most recently in Yongah Hill in WA places of despair tempered by a hope for a better life.
  • The Commission has collaborated with business leaders and captains of industry. On one memorable day I went on a “walk about” in Batemans Bay to visit small business where I terrified local shop keepers who wanted to know why I was there and what they had done wrong!  I assured them I was there to help. Indeed one local business owner followed me down the road saying… please ask the PM to send us some Syrian refugees to reinvigorate the community!
  • With my colleagues I have worked with Muslim communities and had afternoon tea with Tamil communities of Drs, lawyers and teachers and attended the new Jewish Holocaust exhibition here in Sydney.
  • I joined the Mardi Gras covered in sparkly blue paint to support marriage equality and visited women’s refuges
  • On behalf of the Commission I have worked on human rights issues in China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Laos and with Indonesia on the death penalty and had the privilege of working with the United Nations human rights bodies.
  • And finally, I have made regular appearances before the Senate Estimates Committee!

So as you can see, it has been a roller coaster ride over the last five years and I have learned a lot, especially that Australians have a genuine commitment to a “Fair go”.

As our national anthem says, “Advance Australia fair”.  The ideas of social justice and  the rule of law underpin our democracy and national values and as a nation we are prepared to stand up for them.

When each year I watch the acceptance speeches by the Australians of the Year, I am struck by the fact that each of them in one way or another speaks up for human rights and fairness. I admire them enormously because they act upon their values and give their lives to achieving social justice.

Of course, human rights are not of the feint hearted. These are troubling, unstable and even violent times. We are fearful of the unknown and justifiably seek security in the status quo. There will be opposition to the idea of equality and equity in employment, housing and education and health care.  Few human rights are absolute and each must be balanced with the other. Our liberties should be balanced with security in these times of random terrorist attacks, though all responses that impinge upon our freedoms should be both reasonable and proportionate. I am convinced that evidence-based policies can both protect our freedoms and safety of our families.

It is vital that each of us should stand up and speak out for our fundamental rights in our successful multicultural community. We should resist laws that give Ministers non-reviewable discretion to overturn decisions of our tribunals or to cancel visas; we must support the institutions of democracy, especially the courts and our judges and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. We should reject indefinite detention without trial, and the enactment of disproportionate counter terrorism and secrecy laws that restrict freedom of movement and speech; we must stand against racism in all its forms and support freedom of religious expression.

May I conclude by saying what a special honour it has been to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. I have learned to understand a little of the wisdom and spirituality that our Indigenous peoples bring to Australia.  I hope that as the public debate about constitutional recognition continues over the coming months, even years, that we are open to understanding the special place Indigenous peoples have in our nation and in our hearts.

May I thank each of you for your support for human rights and for the four wonderful Australians of year whom we celebrate tonight and support in their work for a better future for all Australians.

Professor Gillian Triggs, President