Skip to main content

Framing and advancing national human rights agendas - Annual Report 2009-2010: Australian Human Rights Commission

The year in review

Framing and advancing national human rights agendas

The Commission provides advice and recommendations to the Australian Government on an ongoing basis. Our aim is to ensure that a human rights perspective informs a broad range of policy issues, especially in priority areas like social inclusion.

We also have a strong, widely acknowledged track record of drawing national attention to pressing human rights issues, raising community awareness and encouraging action by governments, service providers and others.

For example, we have held major national inquiries on issues such as mental illness, racist violence, the Stolen Generations, children in immigration detention and discrimination against same-sex couples. We have also established ground-breaking partnerships to improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Advocating for a strong human rights framework for Australia

The National Human Rights Consultation, which was conducted in the first half of 2009, presented a significant opportunity for the Commission and all people in Australia to participate in a national conversation about human rights and how they could be better protected.

We took a leadership role by dedicating ourselves to encouraging others to participate in the consultation and by arguing strongly that Australia should adopt better human rights protections through a Human Rights Act. (Our 2008–2011 Strategic Plan includes the achievement of an Australian Human Rights Act in the Commission’s mission.)

We made a detailed submission in this regard to the National Human Rights Consultation Committee in June 2009. The committee subsequently asked for more information about our potential role in the delivery of human rights education.

Our supplementary submission briefly set out what we would like to achieve through better human rights education in Australia, and included examples of what we currently do and what else we could achieve given the appropriate funding.

The National Human Rights Consultation Report was released in October 2009. It referred frequently to the Commission’s submission and adopted many of our recommendations. However the government’s response in April 2010 deferred the question of whether Australia should adopt a Human Rights Act.

While we were disappointed by the decision not to implement our recommendation for a Human Rights Act, we welcomed the government’s commitment to enhanced human rights education, to reviewing and consolidating federal discrimination laws and to introducing processes to scrutinise new laws for human rights compliance.

In particular, we welcomed the introduction of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Bill and the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) (Consequential Provisions) Bill into federal Parliament in June 2010. These bills focus attention on Australia’s progress in implementing and respecting our human rights obligations under all seven major human rights treaties. They propose a new Joint Parliamentary Committee which has the potential to open up a broader dialogue on the human rights at the heart of our democracy and conduct inquiries into significant human rights matters referred to it by the Attorney-General. Over time, we believe it will also help to ensure that government and the Parliament consider respect for human rights issues upfront and as a necessary requirement for any new law.

We also welcomed the requirement that all legislation be accompanied by a statement of compatibility with Australia’s international human rights obligations, and the appointment of the Commission President to the Administrative Review Council.

Making age discrimination a topic of national discussion

We believe that age discrimination is one of the great undiscussed issues of our time. It is pervasive, invisible, systemic and accepted. We believe moreover that if we are to be a successful and genuinely inclusive society, we must challenge the age-related assumptions and stereotypes many people unconsciously hold, and bring them into the open so they can be debated and considered.

Our strategy in this regard is to make age discrimination (particularly as it affects mature-age workers in employment) a national policy priority. The strategy involves a number of elements to prevent such discrimination, including education and research, consultation and advocacy.

During the year under review we continued our relationships and ongoing consultation and advocacy with relevant government departments (Treasury, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Attorney General’s departments) and other stakeholders in relation to age discrimination in employment.

We also contributed to the debate on a possible Convention on the Rights of Older People, engaging with domestic and international age NGOs to ensure continuing discussion of better recognition of older people’s rights. In this arena we took a leadership role, seeding the debate about the gap in international protection for older people among key stakeholders in Australia.

In 1 February 2010 the Commission welcomed the government’s announcement of an initial $43-million Productive Ageing Package which gives priority to supporting mature-age workplace participation. We believe it is vital that these measures allow mature-age workers real choice – to work if they need to and work if they want to.

To achieve this, education and the shifting of community attitudes is critical. Many workers are work-ready, skilled and able to start working immediately, yet struggle to find jobs because of unaddressed and unlawful discrimination related to their age.

We also participated in the Consultative Forum on Mature Age Participation, a first time-ever forum comprising the Council on the Ageing, National Seniors, Australian Council of Trade Unions, peak business bodies and the Commission. This meeting was established to consult, discuss and advocate for strategies to address barriers to the participation of mature-aged people in the workforce.

Setting a gender equality blueprint for Australia

After nine major national reviews on gender equality in Australia, there remains a major gap in equality between women and men. We believe that, in the wake of securing the major reform of a paid parental leave scheme for Australia in 2010, there is a risk that gender equality will be considered ‘finished business,’ making further reform unnecessary.

In June 2010 Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick launched a Gender Equality Blueprint 2010 at the National Press Club. The new gender blueprint represents a vital next stage of reform.

The blueprint sets out 15 achievable, practical recommendations in five priority areas which were identified from Commissioner Broderick’s 2007 national ‘listening tour’. These areas are: balancing paid work and family and caring responsibilities, ensuring women’s lifetime economic security, promoting women in leadership, preventing violence against women and sexual harassment, and strengthening national gender equality laws.

In particular, we believe Australia needs a national childcare body to oversee ongoing development of a system of high-quality, accessible, affordable universal childcare.

To promote women in leadership, we need the government to announce a minimum 40% of each gender to be represented on all federal government boards within three years, with progress against this target reported annually.

And to address sexual harassment and violence against women, we require a national prevention strategy to drive down the incidence of sexual harassment in workplaces. An independent body should monitor the implementation of the national plan to reduce violence against women.

The Commission has urged the government and political parties to adopt the blueprint. We further urge the business sector to put innovative gender-equality strategies in place and to measure achievement against them. We also urge unions to maintain their focus on pay equity. We encourage women’s groups and other NGOs to continue the sustained advocacy that was instrumental in delivering paid parental leave to the community.

Lifting the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in the northern Territory Emergency Response

On 21 June 2007, the Australian Government announced a ‘national emergency response to protect Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory’ from sexual abuse and family violence. This has become known as the NT Intervention or NT Emergency Response (NTER).

Though the Commission welcomed the government’s announcements to act to protect the rights of Indigenous women and children in the Northern Territory, at the same time we urged the government and Parliament to adopt an approach that is consistent with Australia’s international human rights obligations and particularly with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA).

Through advocacy and advice the Commission has raised concerns over the NTER via parliamentary submissions, speeches and in consultations with government representatives.

Part of the NTER, the issue of income management has become a much discussed topic across Australia in relation to distribution of welfare payments in Indigenous communities in the NT. In November 2009, we released draft guidelines for ensuring income management measures comply with the RDA. These guidelines provide practical assistance to Parliament and the government for designing and implementing income management measures that protect human rights and are consistent with the RDA. We are currently revising the Draft Guidelines in line with the feedback received.

In February 2010 we made a submission to the Inquiry into the Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act Bill 2009 and other bills.

We believe the passage of the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009 will go some way to lifting the suspension of the RDA and state and territory anti-discrimination laws in the Northern Territory.

However we believe the passing of this legislation should only be a first step in restoring full protection under the RDA for affected communities. It is vital that the next steps for improving the NTER include the gathering of relevant baseline data and development of monitoring and evaluation tools, followed by further steps to ensure the full reinstatement of the RDA.

Putting a national disability strategy and national disability insurance scheme on the agenda

In December 2009 we welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement that development of a National Disability Strategy would be placed on the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG’s) reform agenda and would be based on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – as we had suggested. We have been assisting in the work of the COAG working group on this issue.

Also in December 2009, as a major component of the National Disability Strategy, the Prime Minister announced a Productivity Commission inquiry on a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). For some time the Commission and many disability organisations have supported such a scheme as a way to translate human rights into reality for people with disability.

Addressing health inequality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders: Close the Gap

Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, laid the groundwork for the community-led Close the Gap Campaign with his 2005 Social Justice Report. The campaign seeks to achieve equality in health status and life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians.

The Commission provides secretariat and media support to the campaign and, by virtue of the central role played by current Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, continues to be involved.

Officially launched in 2007, the campaign is now actively led by a Steering Committee (chaired by the Commissioner) comprising approximately 20 peak Indigenous and non-Indigenous health and human rights organisations, with the broader public support of approximately 20 other organisations. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership is a key characteristic of the Steering Committee.

In March 2008 a series of commitments were secured from the Australian Government when the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, signed the Close the Gap Statement of Intent.

By signing the Statement of Intent, Australian governments are committed to putting firm targets, funding and timeframes in place, and to working together to achieve equality in health status and life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians by the year 2030.

Since the campaign began, almost $5 billion of ‘Close the Gap’ branded programs have been provided by Australian governments to address poorer Indigenous health, including the social determinants that act as contributors. We continue to participate in some 20 Australian Government and COAG reform processes in the Indigenous health and health policy space and related areas.

During the year under review an additional two governments signed the Statement of Intent – New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. In June 2010 the Close the Gap – Making it Happen workshop was held at Old Parliament House in Canberra. It focused on practical moves that could be undertaken to bring the government’s commitments to the campaign to fruition, particularly development of a long term national action plan in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Also, on 25 March 2010, more than 30 000 people across Australia took part in National Close the Gap Day, sending a strong message that government should get right its approach to addressing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health crisis.