Stand up for your rights, Australia!
From "The Weekend Australian", September 10, 2005
BACK in the early '90s, the federal government asked me to chair one of its
smallest agencies - the National Australia Day Council. Our brief was much
bigger than our budget - to encourage Australians to explore and celebrate
national identity. At the time, Australia Day was a bit daggy - lots of
re-enactments of Arthur Phillip setting foot on shore. To blackfellas, it was
not a day to celebrate. To most, it was just the last weekend before the end of
the summer holidays.
We decided to make the day about the future rather than the past - to talk about
core values and the sort of country we could become. Reconciliation was high on
the agenda - supported by both sides of parliament. With Mandawuy Yunupingu my
board's first Australian of the Year, we had hundreds of public meetings across
And at every meeting there was a clear consensus: Australia was about "a fair
go". The fair go was the article of faith. Sadly, it's becoming a mythical
creature, hiding in a billabong somewhere with the bunyips.
The "fair go" issue came alive at the time of the Tampa when 10,000 readers
backed me in establishing A Just Australia. And we've just gone through a
five-year struggle to get kids out of detention, to stop housing thousands in
detention camps in Nauru, Woomera, Manus Island, Christmas Island, Curtin and
Port Hedland. Our government is still "processing" the people who fled terror
regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan as their "temporary" refugee status is reviewed,
four years after the last of them arrived by boat.
Finally, A Just Australia has got some promises of solutions for long-term
detainees. We've seen children moved out of the detention centres and have built
up a coalition of forces to break the bipartisanship of support for bad policy.
We've seen the campaign broaden from just the left and the churches, creating
divisions in the government to achieve change. But there's no guarantee that if
another group of asylum-seekers headed our way, we wouldn't do it all again.
Where was the "fair go" in all of this? What practical difference did it make
that Australia was a signatory to all the major human rights treaties? That it
even chaired the UN Commission on Human Rights during this time? Where was the
protection of the courts for the most vulnerable people in Australia?
The fair go, it turned out, wasn't guaranteed by the High Court. As Justice
McHugh said, "It's not for courts, exercising federal jurisdiction, to determine
whether the course taken by Parliament is unjust or contrary to basic human
Our kids get the idea of rights from watching American TV. It takes a while for
them to realise that they don't have constitutional rights in Australia. The
Bill of Rights is there for Americans - and for Canadians there's a Charter of
Rights and Freedoms. Britain joins with the rest of Europe in the European
Convention on Human Rights.
All these countries have healthy parliamentary democracies and courts, but
they've decided there will still be a set of standards that their governments
must maintain - and a process of complaint and review when the governments
breach those standards.
We don't have these protections. And we've seen the results. Attempts to bring
even a limited bill of rights through a referendum were defeated, with the main
argument being "the courts will protect". There are a few Australians, such as
Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez, who would dispute this - and thousands of new
Australians who've had grim experiences of our human rights protections when
Yes, we've got a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. It was a body
born of compromise and is now neglected and ignored. Our government still goes
through the motions in reporting to UN treaty bodies on our observance of key
international instruments, but dismisses any criticism.
And we've got new challenges - a government that can't even tell the truth about
the connection between our involvement in Iraq and the prospect of terror
attacks is asking us to trust them with new "anti-terror" laws. And the
industrial relations "reform" may well leave millions of Australians unprotected
We need a stronger voice for human rights now - and I'm asking for your help
again. Building on the experience of A Just Australia, under the leadership of
my friend Howard Glenn, who led AJA, we've created a new organisation: Rights
We've established an office in Sydney and a website, and around 1500 people have
already expressed their interest and support. I'd like you to sign up, and to
help. Visit www.rightsaustralia.org.au for information or to make credit card
donations. Or write to me at Elmswood, Gundy, NSW 2337.
Phillip Adams AO