Thursday 13 December 2018



14 December 2018

Westin Hotel, Sydney

(Check against delivery)

[Thank you for your warm welcome to country]

I begin by paying my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation— to their elders, past and present, and to the future generations; and I particularly acknowledge all Indigenous guests joining us here today.

On behalf of the Australian Human Rights Commission may I welcome each and every one of you—and especially our finalists—to the Human Rights Awards for 2018! The awards provide us with the opportunity to reflect on the extraordinary achievements of our fellow Australians to making our country a better place.

The catalyst for some of our finalists is borne out of tragedy.  The catalyst for others is wrought in anger, translated into fierce determination to effect change.  Or to expose human rights abuses so that redress may come. Others are seized with an idea to change the world.

The unifying theme is of resilience — and of profound optimism. There is much to celebrate—much still to do. 

Today we celebrate and honour the achievement of outstanding contributors to the mission imagined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which turned 70 this year. This ‘international magna carta for all [people] everywhere’ was introduced by the Chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the indomitable Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of US President FD Roosevelt.

Human rights, as set out in the Universal Declaration, start with an essential proposition—that people are born ‘free and equal in dignity and rights’, as Article 1 affirms.

The Declaration embodies a vision that transcends political parties and political systems and reaches across all societies and all nations.

But, as Mrs Roosevelt also reminded us, documents such as the UDHR ‘carry no weight unless the people know them, unless the people understand them, unless the people demand that they be lived’.

And so today, I am delighted to announce that the Commission will conduct a National Summit on Human Rights in mid-2019. This will be a key part of a national conversation on human rights that we will lead next year.

Why do we need such a conversation?

Because we seem to have lost sight of the overall purpose of protecting the human rights of the whole community.

Legislation is not comprehensive in its protection. Our discrimination law is complex and does not protect everyone in our community. Our discrimination laws are important: they directly reflect our international commitments and can achieve many positive systemic outcomes, but discrimination law is framed in the negative space—what you can’t do—and relies on a dispute before offering a solution.

Our human rights system was innovative in the 1980s, but has now been surpassed by developments in other countries.

We need to reimagine our system of protections of human rights and freedoms—so that we can provide everyone with the opportunity to be the best that they can be.

I want to see as the outcome of this conversation—

  • that people understand human rights and freedoms and take action to protect them (for themselves and for others)
  • that communities are resilient and alert to human rights violations
  • that law and policy makers explicitly consider human rights in their decision-making
  • that robust institutions exist to promote and protect human rights
  • that government and the community work together to fully realise human rights—understanding the respective role of each other and contributing to a shared ambition for the best possible realisation of human rights and freedoms, and
  • that public servants, and contracted service providers, see the protection of human rights as core business in exercising their functions.

I want to see human rights and freedoms embedded in our national psyche – and not as an afterthought.

What can you expect from me and the Human Rights Commission?
Our ambition is—

  • to recommend an agenda for federal law reform to protect human rights and freedoms fully
  • to recommend priorities for reforming federal discrimination law to make it more effective and less complex
  • to articulate key actions that all governments must take to adequately protect the human rights and freedoms of all Australians, and
  • to identify how we can build community understanding and partnerships to realise human rights and freedoms.

As one example, we are starting to see more attention on the age of criminal responsibility of children. Our forthcoming national conversation will frame it this way: should we, in 21st century Australia, be locking up 10 year old children in juvenile detention? Are there better practices and more appropriate responses?
How are we going to get there?

I look forward to your engagement in this national conversation. Because human rights are best protected and promoted—when they are everyone’s responsibility, everyone has a role to play.

For many of you, it is core business. And we are making steps forward.

Almost unnoticed, the Australian Parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act a few weeks ago, setting out human rights reporting obligations for large companies about their supply chains.

Our elected representatives also joined together to apologise for the experiences of victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings in the past. The initial steps were also taken to compensate victims for their experiences and ensure counselling support for them, as well as to ‘future proof’ institutions from such practices.

Yesterday the Government announced that it would be introducing a new discrimination law to make religion a protected attribute. This will fill a gap in terms of protections of rights and the Commission has recommended such protections for 20 years.

But the discussion around this and the current framing of issues concerning religion by way of exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act, particularly as they affect children and teachers, has demonstrated how challenging—and painful—issues of rights are when they are put into conflict.

The Commission’s position is quite clear here too: the use of exemptions is the wrong way to go and we have advocated their removal from the Sex Discrimination Act since 1992. Quite simply, the current exemption in section 38 should go.

It is critical that any new laws, or any amended laws, do not create new forms of discrimination. Australia must protect the rights of all people—if you are of faith; if you are pregnant; if you are born with intersex variations; if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender—we are all born ‘free and equal in dignity and rights’.

As we undertake this national conversation on human rights in the coming year I want to engage all of you, and your enthusiasm, in answering these questions:

What makes an effective system of human rights protection for 21st century Australia?

What kind of Australia do we want to live in—for ourselves and, most importantly, for our children and our children’s children?

In our first Human Rights Day Oration on 10th December, presented by the two Royal Commissioners of the NT Royal Commission, Mick Gooda and the Hon Margaret White, Mick concluded his speech by reminding us all of the poem by Indigenous poet, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (or Kath Walker as I knew her as a schoolgirl), titled ‘A Song of Hope’, which begins -

Look up, my people,
The dawn is breaking
The world is waking
To a bright new day
Mick recited the last stanza:
To our fathers’ fathers
The pain, the sorrow;
To our children’s children
The glad tomorrow.

These words are ones we should remember dearly as we focus attention on the human rights of children, with Australia due to appear before the Committee on the Rights of the Child in September next year.

To conclude, I would like to bring us all back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights where I began and ask you to join with me in an affirmation, as our human rights ‘credo’, the words of the Preamble, our:

faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women … to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

Or, again in the words of Oodgeroo Noonuccal

To our children’s children

The glad tomorrow.

Thank you—and now to the awards!