Prof. Rosalind Croucher at Free + Equal Human Rights Conference

– Good morning, everyone. Your Excellency, Dr. Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High
Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Commission commissioners, Dr. Ben Gauntlett, Disability
Discrimination Commissioner, Race Discrimination
Commissioner, Chin Tan, Sex Discrimination
Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, and Megan Mitchell, our National
Children’s Commissioner. We also have the Honourable,
Catherine Branson, ACQC, former president of the Commission, and the Honourable Susan Ryan, AO, former Age and Disability
Discrimination Commissioner. Les Malezer, member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, The Honourable Roslyn Atkinson, AO, Royal Commissioner into Violence, Neglect, Exploitation of
People with Disability, The Honourable Jamie Freeman, MP, Member for Mirrabooka in the
Western Australian Parliament. Esteemed panelists and their moderators, colleagues and friends. Thank you, Uncle Chicka for that powerful welcome to country. Uncle Chicka knows just
how to set the tone in his welcomes in Gadigal country. I, too, acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, on the beautiful edge of Sydney Harbour, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to Elders past, present, and emerging, and to acknowledge any Indigenous guests sharing this wonderful day with us today. The acknowledgment of emerging leaders is especially important, I think, in the context of what
we are aiming to achieve through our conference and through our national conversation because we are most squarely
looking to the future and so it’s entirely
fitting that our first panel which focuses on our First Peoples is also chaired by the
brilliant Brooke Boney, a fine example of emerging leaders connecting both our past and our future. On behalf of the Australian
Human Rights Commission, may I welcome each and every one of you to our Free and Equal
Conference on Human Rights, joining us in what I know
will be a very engaging, challenging, and uplifting day. It is a great privilege and responsibility for me to lead such an important agenda and conversation during
my term as President of the National Human Rights Institution. Today we have the immense honour of being joined by Dr. Bachelet. Dr. Bachelet first came
to Australia in 1975 and she was indeed one of our
very first political refugees. When we came to visit
her in Geneva in March, we appealed to her memories
of her time in Australia, in inviting her to join us here today. You may have seen in our promotional material for the conference, a wonderful picture of Dr.
Bachelet from that time wearing some very stylish bell
bottoms that I remember well. One of the many honours that
Dr. Bachelet has received is the honorary award of Companion of the Order of Australia, AC, which she was given just
over seven years ago, on the 5th of October 2012, for outstanding global leadership in promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women as the Executive Director of UN Women and for her eminent service to developing Australia-Chile
bilateral relations. The High Commissioner is in Australia for a four-day program of events focused on our national
conversation on human rights. It is a particular mark of respect for us, for Her Excellency to
come at the invitation of a national human rights institution. We are deeply honoured, Dr. Bachelet, that you have honoured us with your visit. The significance of both our
roles has a shared history. The creation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the affirmation of the independence of independent national human rights institutions and their contributions, like the Australian Commission, were two of the major outcomes from the World Conference
on Human Rights in 1993. And, for example, in the past weeks, we have twice appeared on the world stage, as Australia’s National
Human Rights Institution, before the Committee for
the Rights of the Child and the Committee for the Rights
of Persons with Disability. At our human rights awards
last year in December, after marking a year of
celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, I announced that we would be undertaking a national conversation on human rights invoking the first article of the Universal Declaration itself that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. This conference today is
a highlight of our agenda. The conference, and the
conversation as a whole, were borne out of a desire
to bring people together, to re-imagine our national system for protecting human rights. We are asking big questions. What do we want the future
of Australia to look like? What matters to everyday Australians? What legacy do we want
to leave our children, and our children’s children? Most particularly, the intention of this
national conversation is to rise above politics of the moment and to look to the future. As I speak this morning, a baby is being born somewhere in this great country of ours. Let us pause for thought and ask what we need to do to ensure that this child has the best opportunity they can have to thrive, to achieve and fully
enjoy their human rights? A child’s future should not be determined by whether they’re born in a
rural or an urban community, or depending on their gender, race, or some other characteristic. It is time we talked about human rights in a forward, future building way, where the focus is aspirational
and positively focused on how we build our communities and how they cohere in our society. The debates that have dominated
the human rights space over recent years have
been largely unproductive, pitting different sectors of
society against each other and dividing the community, usually resulting in a stalemate. And we seem to have lost
the art of having a debate that is respectful and tolerant of the expression of
views that are different. Difference is a strength, not a weakness, something to be embraced and understood. We need to step back and look
at the landscape as a whole. Not focusing solely on details, but looking at the big
picture, the overall picture. Asking and celebrating
what we are doing well in terms of human rights protections, and being frank and
genuine in acknowledging where we are not and
where we can do better. Without this bigger conversation, how can we approach things from a place of shared understanding and goodwill? We do have a strong sense of rights and freedoms in Australia, but we do not have a commonly understood, let alone embedded framework to help us grapple with the
challenges that confront us. We may disagree on the
answers to such challenges, but we need at least
to have a conversation about how we are going to get there, where we can draw on all
that we have in common, while acknowledging, indeed celebrating, those things that make us different. And on this, I think, there will be much room for agreement. In our national conversation we are invoking a commonly used framework, of respecting, protecting,
and fulfilling human rights, to show the different types of actions needed to realise human
rights across the country. Specific areas of focus concern changes to our discrimination law framework and ways to achieve a
positive framing of rights. And while laws are incredibly important, they are only one type of action needed to ensure human rights are realised. The respect, protect, fulfil framework allows us to see that multiple actions, across multiple areas are
required to make progress. While we are looking at the whole suite of federal discrimination laws, a particular topic of the moment concerns enforceable protections against religious discrimination
for all people in Australia. Prohibiting discrimination on
the ground of religious belief or activity is consistent
with the tolerant, pluralistic nature of Australian society. The Commission itself has been a long-time advocate for such protections, but the draft bill now under consideration needs changes to make sure
everyone’s rights are protected. Religious freedom must not come at the expense of others’ rights, including to the right to
protection from discrimination. The lens of human rights
principles and tools helps to resolve much apparent conflict. After all, apart from a few, like the right to life,
freedom from torture, and freedom from slavery, human rights are not absolute,
immutable propositions. There are checks and balances that exist with most
human rights and freedoms. There are strict criteria for
when you can limit rights. There is guidance on how you balance rights when they conflict. And there are expectations
of what governments are obliged to do to make the realisation of rights possible. Above all, human rights require transparency and
accountability from government. This is a human rights based approach. But the use of human rights principles does not usurp the role of government. Quite to the contrary, these principles can inform and enrich the debates of our politicians. They ensure that the human
impact of decision-making is at the front of mind, squarely
understood and explained. Some people may regard human
rights standards and principles as somehow outside impositions by an amorphous and foreign United Nations, at odds with state sovereignty. To which I would respond, is compassion foreign? Is respect and dignity foreign? Is the aspiration for everyone to be given a fair go a stranger to our values? Are any of these things foreign? Are not the values that
underpin human rights principles already central to our own sense of values in this country as Australians? So, how do we help realize that we are already talking
in human rights language? As the outcome of our
national conversation, our aspirations for the future are that people understand human
rights and freedoms as theirs and take action to protect them, for themselves and for others, that communities are resilient and alert to human rights breaches, supported by robust institutions, that law and policy makers explicitly consider human rights
in their decision-making and see the protection of human rights as core business in
exercising their functions, that government and the
community work together, understanding the respective
role of each other and contributing to a shared ambition for the best possible realisation of human rights and freedoms. Through the national conversation, we want you to help us to find ways to achieve these outcomes so that human rights thinking is part of everyday
speaking and decision-making and not somehow factored
in as an afterthought. We’ve set out the
Commission’s initial thinking on some key areas in a
series of discussion papers. But this is a conversation
and we want to hear from you. We look forward to engaging with you. To agreeing and disagreeing with you about these priorities, that is the essence of good
and constructive conversation. And in the middle of next year, we will release a roadmap for human rights reform
for the next decade. Today, together with Dr. Bachelet, we are joined by speakers
from around Australia coming from very different
backgrounds and experiences. You will hear about grassroots movements to hear the voices of rural
communities in Parliament, perspectives from the
boardroom to the classroom, the role of the arts,
media, and sporting sectors, and the stories of individuals who are leading change
in their own communities. A common theme among them is that most speakers
you will hear from today don’t necessarily identify themselves as human rights champions. Indeed, a few queried why we had asked them to speak at this
conference in the first place. So, I hope that this will lead to an important understanding
from today’s discussions, that human rights are about the everyday issues and concerns of Australians all over the nation. They are, as Eleanor Roosevelt
famously described them, things that occur in small places. And the wonderful consequence of this? That they are owned by everyone. That anyone can influence them
and positively protect them. As our world changes and we face ever more complex challenges, everyone has a role to play, we can all do more, we can also do it together. Now is the time to have
a hard conversation, to bring focus and shared purpose back to the human rights agenda. Now is the time to expand
those conversations out beyond those who
consider themselves experts, to realize that conversations
about human rights are already happening all around us even when they aren’t labeled as such. And at this time we need to focus, to listen to what people want, find the things that are indeed common goals and apply pressure together. As Dr. Bachelet said
recently at the 42nd session of the United Nations
Human Rights Council, “With sufficient determination,
acting in partnership, “we can take steps to advance human rights “and fundamental freedoms, “and in doing so, we will
strengthen our societies, “and build a better future for us all.” All over Australia there
are babies being born today. Indeed, adding to this, my fifth grandchild is
due in January next year. A boy called Noah already. Now is the time to think
about the future for these, our children and our children’s children. I am delighted that you are
all joining me here today, at what I know is just the beginning of a far bigger conversation. Thank you. (applause)

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