Why Australia needs a Bill of Rights

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Topics Inclusion
The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG at the lecturn

Australia has a less than perfect record in according respect and legal protection to its minorities. Delivering DCA’s third Anna McPhee Memorial Oration on Diversity & Inclusion, sponsored by Telstra, Retired Justice of the High Court of Australia, The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG, called for the introduction of a Bill of Rights to ensure legally protected equality for all.

"Democracies are good at looking after majorities," Mr Kirby told the Melbourne audience on Wednesday. "But in Australia, we have very few mechanisms if politicians in the majority don't feel it is a matter they are interested in or that there are no votes in it."

"A Bill of Rights provides something to teach kids at school about universal human rights and the things we share together, not just as citizens, but as human beings, respecting one another."

"A Bill of Rights provides a hook on which to hang the arguments of inequality and injustice. In Australia, as I was growing up, there was nothing much that women could do except agitate in the political realm and the gays couldn't agitate in the political realm because they had to keep their head down and keep on pretending."

Mr Kirby also called for a bipartisan approach. "Finding the fundamental principles that bind us together and rules for a fair society are principles that should not be consigned to one side of politics. It would be shameful if we did not come together and solve the issue of what we're going to do about expressing the rights of the Aboriginal people, and the aged, and women, and refugees, and people of different races and religions."

"In Australia, a real source of our discrimination has been race. We can't ignore or fail to recognise this, particularly when we acknowledge at the beginning of all public events now, the Indigenous people."

Mr Kirby noted that in the historic Mabo decision in 1992, the High Court went outside the Australian legal system. It drew on a fundamental principle upheld by the treaties of the United Nations that universal human rights cannot be denied on the basis of race.  

"That was a very important illustration to citizens of Australia, that our legal system had an inadequacy. We didn't have an external standard. We didn't have the great principle as part of our law that we could appeal to in order to take a step which fundamental justice and equality of all people within the country demanded."

That was 27 years ago and we still have a long way to go. However, Mr Kirby is hopeful that the fighters for diversity who seek equality, justice and kindness to one another will continue the fight for a fair society living under universal human rights.

DCA’s CEO, Lisa Annese believes a Bill of Rights would provide Australia with an opportunity to develop our national identity, to enshrine the principles we are prepared to stand for in a positive and inclusive way.

"This framing of human rights will have a positive flow on to the workplace where people’s diversity of identity can be respected and celebrated,” said Ms Annese.

Julian Clarke, Talent & Organisational Effectiveness Executive, Transformation & People, Telstra, who spoke on the panel at the event said human rights were critically important and had been throughout his career.

“We employ over 27,000 people, including members of minority communities. We know that inclusion, flexibility and fairness are essential for our people to thrive. As we adopt new technologies and transform our organisation for the future, we are acutely aware of the need to protect human rights and stay true to our purpose of creating a brilliant connected future for everyone. We are committed to that,” said Mr Clarke.

Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, who also spoke on the panel said, “At present, we are not paying sufficient attention to the impact of laws and policies on people. When Parliament makes a law, there should be full consideration of the impact on people’s human rights and the justification for any infringements of rights. Similarly, policy makers and service deliverers should be expected to consider explicitly whether their actions have an impact on human rights. Our current approach does not do this,” said Ms Croucher.

Download a copy of Michael Kirby's Oration.

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