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Commissioners' statements - Annual Report 2009-2010: Australian Human Rights Commission

Commissioners’ statements

Mick Gooda
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Despite the positive positioning of the National Apology and the establishment of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, the fundamental nature of the Northern Territory Emergency Response continued to impede the development of a good relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian Government.

What an historic time in history it has been to step into this role!

In November 2009 I, like thousands of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples around the nation, felt the return of optimism with the announcement that a new voice for Indigenous Australians would soon be in existence.

Establishment of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples was a watershed moment for Indigenous peoples in Australia. It is fitting that I acknowledge the herculean efforts of my predecessor, Tom Calma, in bringing this to fruition and securing funding for the Congress from the Australian Government.

The shift in the Indigenous policy landscape following the National Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008 continued to gain momentum in 2009. We saw evidence of a more inclusive and promising future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples than in previous years.

My arrival coincided with the release of The Social Justice and Native Title Reports 2009 which provided a comprehensive assessment of the state of Indigenous affairs in Australia.

It was clear that some areas remained challenging. In particular, the continuing over-representation in the criminal justice system of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the protection of Indigenous languages and sustaining Aboriginal homeland communities.

The year in native title also saw reforms that could prove to be the first steps in transforming the native title system, such as the impressive settlement framework announced by the Victorian Attorney General and the process of native title reform commenced by the Australian Government.

The Native Title Report also considered developments in Indigenous land tenure and argued for reforms that would assist Indigenous peoples to make use of their lands rather than requiring communities to hand over decision-making about their lands to a government entity.

Despite the positive positioning of the National Apology and the establishment of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, the fundamental nature of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) continued to impede the development of a good relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian Government.

In August, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous peoples visited Australia and assessed the degree to which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples enjoy their human rights. In addition to a number of concerns regarding the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights, he drew particular attention to the discriminatory nature of the NTER.

The year ended with the Australian Government taking measures to address these concerns, with the passage in June of legislation that removed some of the discriminatory aspects of the NTER by reinstating the Racial Discrimination Act.

Mick Gooda
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Graeme Innes, AM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner

I approach the coming year with the sense that more progress will be made, but also with the knowledge that there is still much left to do if we are to achieve the vision of human rights for everyone, everywhere, every day.

As I approach the end of five years in the role of Commissioner, it is clear to me that – to misquote the famous adage – my work here is not done.

Australians with disability are still either excluded from, or limited in, our access to public buildings, and we still receive second-class treatment in many forms of public transport, particularly airlines.

The ‘first’ Australians are not recognised in our Constitution and, as we know from recent experience in the Northern Territory, racial equality is not entrenched. We have not had a national multicultural policy for over a decade, and the absence of a national anti-racism strategy plays out in various areas of community activity. The well-publicised experience of rugby league player Timana Tahu is just one example of many.

On the credit side, however, as outlined throughout this report, this year has seen much progress.

Good progress was made in the restoration of the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory. The government’s Human Rights Framework, and the statement from the Australian Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee, are a promising start. And the suggestions of Constitutional change in the area of race bring hope for Indigenous Australians.

For Australians with disability, Access To Premises Standards are almost in place, we have a plan by which new houses will be made livable for all, and a national disability strategy has been announced. I, and 300 000 other Australians who are blind or have low vision, now have the opportunity to vote in secret at the 2010 election. And as the year closes, we await the announcement that captions and audio description in cinemas will become far more prevalent due to a partnership between government, the cinema industry and the disability sector – a partnership in which the Commission played a part.

I approach the coming year with the sense that more progress will be made, but also with the knowledge that there is still much left to do if we are to achieve the vision of human rights for everyone, everywhere, every day.

Graeme Innes, AM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner

Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination

2010 will be remembered as the year, after 30 years of tenacious advocacy, that Australia finally secured a paid parental leave scheme … we look forward to working with the government to improve and extend the scheme over time.

On many fronts, the 2009-10 year has been a dynamic one.

Working with our stakeholders, we managed to significantly raise public awareness of ageism and age discrimination in our country and the fact that it is systemic, invisible and implicitly accepted. We drew attention to the significant size of the mature-age worker workforce and the realities of discrimination that they face on a daily basis – not only in work, but in recruitment, training, development and preparation for retirement.

The year has also been a productive one in terms of advocating for the research and legal reform that is needed so that action can be taken to address this largely unacknowledged problem.

At the same time we have also seen significant developments in relation to our agenda items in gender equality.

2010 will be remembered as the year, after 30 years of tenacious advocacy, that Australia finally secured a paid parental leave scheme, complete with a two-year review period. We look forward to working with the government to improve and extend the scheme over time.

Women’s leadership was another area in which we saw noticeable impetus develop, particularly from within the private sector. The issue received considerable media coverage during the year, which particularly helped in elevating it on the national business agenda. A number of organisations announced initiatives that would assist their female staff in the achievement of executive and board positions. And in April, I had the privilege of being involved in the formation of a 10-member strong group of male business leaders dedicated to this cause.

Late June was an exciting time for us. The government announced its acceptance of a number of the recommendations of the Senate Committee to strengthen and modernise the Sex Discrimination Act. These changes will provide greater protection for men and women with family responsibilities in all areas of employment, strengthen protection from sexual harassment for workers, as well as school students, and make breastfeeding an explicit ground of unlawful discrimination.

I concluded the year by releasing my Gender Equality Blueprint 2010, which sets out 15 recommendations in five priority areas to focus on practical, achievable changes that can be made now to ensure that achievement of gender equality remains firmly on the national agenda now and into the future.

Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination