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Remembering responsibilities in a Bill of Rights.



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Remembering Responsibilities in a Bill of Rights

Catherine Moore

Thankyou for giving me the opportunity to give a Green perspective on the issue of a

Bill of Rights at this Women's Constitutional Convention 2002. I would like to begin

by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, traditional owners of the land on which we

are gathered, and whose rights to exist as they had for thousands of years were denied

the moment we arrived here with our irresponsible contempt for ancient knowledge and

with the laws we brought from another world on the other side of the planet. I would

also like to acknowledge the women - all women - because in the end I'm sure it will be

the women who put everything to right. My apologies for not being able to attend the

rest of the Conference and hear what others have had to say.

The topic I have chosen for today is Remembering Responsibilities in a Bill of Rights.

There has been much discussion over the years about the need for a Bill of Rights, but

little attention has been paid to the issue of the responsibilities that go with those rights.

Indeed, some have even gone as far as to suggest that responsibilities are irrelevant, or

too hard.

Rights cannot be conjured out of thin air. If we, individually and collectively, do not

recognise that we have responsibilities as well as rights, it will almost certainly be very

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difficult to ensure those rights are delivered. It is this perspective that I want to

concentrate on today, and this paper will focus on asserting the imperative for those

responsibilities.

There will be many ideas about what should go into a Bill of Rights, and some have

argued that the very notion of even having a Bill of Rights is fraught with difficulty

because we might decide later that we want to include or exclude certain issues. Well,

that's OK - perhaps we should consider any Bill of Rights and Responsibilities to be a

fluid document, just like our Constitution ought to be, in recognition of the fact that

constitutional reform ought to be an ongoing process, not beginning and ending with

Federation. Surely a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities can evolve with the people it is

meant to protect. It can, along with a model for an Australian Republic, be developed

as part of a process of ongoing constitutional reform which happens over a number of

years in communities around Australia, so whatever system we end up with is truly

owned by all Australians, not dictated to us by a small number of people.

Let's start by looking at the issue of water. Water is the basis for our existence. It is the

one thing above any other that links all of us, and without it we'd be dead in a week.

No-one would argue that we all have the fundamental right to a clean and dependable

supply. Yet despite the fact that this is the most fundamental basic necessity which

allows not only us but all the other living things on Earth to survive, we have

mismanaged it to the extent that we are now suffering grave consequences, and will

continue to do so until we change our attitudes and practices. So why are some able to

use large amounts of water unsustainably and for an unrealistically low cost while

others watch as their watercourses diminish to a dribble and are forced to pay high

prices for this basic necessity in order to live?

If responsibilities, as well rights, were understood as integral to the accessibility of

water, we would not find ourselves in the situation we are in at the moment in Australia

in relation to this vital resource,

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♦ where we continue to clear land at a frightening rate, despite the problems of

dryland salinity that result from such actions,

♦ where we continue to grow crops in areas that are unsuitable and as a result allow

rivers to run perilously low or even dry to ensure there will be enough water for

large-scale irrigators,

♦ where rainwater tanks were frowned upon in many urban areas until recently, and

♦ where we use high quality water to flush our toilets, and let storm water and sewage

go out to sea instead of changing it into something that is useable. To name but a

few examples.

I think water, above all else, demonstrates why responsibility is so important in any Bill

of Rights, and the key to ensuring adequate water supplies to all. It now needs to be the

key in legislation.

We're probably all familiar with Section 100 of our constitution, which says:

Nor abridge right to use water.

100. The Commonwealth shall not, by any law or regulation of trade or

commerce, abridge the right of a State or of the residents therein to the

reasonable use of the waters of rivers for conservation or irrigation.

The problem has been that important little word "reasonable". I do not believe that it is

possible to claim that states have made reasonable use of the waters of rivers, and

Environment Australia's State of the Environment (SoE) Report 2001 supports this

view:

(p. 57) (A) significant challenge in water management comes from our system of

federalism where states and territories largely have the responsibility for water and

catchment management. Each state and territory has different approaches to

management, to defining environmental needs, and on deciding what is the acceptable

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health of an aquatic system. This is further complicated when a river, wetland or

groundwater resource crosses state and territory boundaries. Cross border and

resource management authorities are striving to achieve more integrated processes and

outcomes in the management of their respective inland waters and catchments.

However, for some issues state or territory interests have overridden what is

environmentally sustainable for the whole catchment.

Responsibility has never come into it. It has all been about rights. Individually states

may have felt that their use of the rivers in the Murray-Darling system was reasonable,

but they didn't look at the rights of the other users.

Nor have they accepted their responsibility to manage the water resource sustainably. It

has been regarded as an unlimited supply when in truth it is very limited. Ground water

resources are also being used unsustainably and polluted, for example, by the Beverley

Uranium Mine.

I spoke recently at a forum in Parliament House entitled The Murray-Darling Beyond

Federation - How the Murray-Darling Basin and the Australian Environment generally

have suffered under our present system of government, and visions for environmentally

sustainable government. The focus of the group that hosted the event is abolishing

state governments and exploring more efficient and democratic models of government

for Australia. That focus has some relevance for today's topic too, for I believe that any

Bill of Rights in Australia ought to be a national one. Introducing separate Bills of

Rights arbitrarily into individual states and territories may well be divisive to the

overall aim of improving democracy in this country.

In fact, if we're talking water, (and it doesn't end there) perhaps we need to start

thinking global, with a global Bill of Rights and Responsibilities being more

appropriate. There needs to be equity of distribution, and situations where communities

lose their water supply altogether because it is needed for a golf course, as has

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happened in Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of Asia, ought to be the concern and

responsibility of the global community, particularly when you consider that our

continent is divided by mere state boundaries. All the other continents are divided by

national boundaries, and unless a holistic approach is taken, water will soon be the

cause of more wars than ever before as wealthier nations and those in prime

geographical locations monopolise the rivers that flow through their land on the way to

countries downstream.

The Greens policies for constitutional reform include a Bill of Rights and

Responsibilities, and the section which relates to the environment reads as follows:

Right and responsibility to environmental protection and conservation

41. (1) Everyone has the collective and individual right to an environment that is

protected from excessive, undue or unreasonable human interference and is conserved

by the Government for its own intrinsic value.

(2) Everyone has the collective and individual responsibility to protect the air,

water and soil of the Earth for the sake of present inhabitants and future generations.

And under the heading

Right and responsibility to ecologically sustainable development

42. (1) Everyone has the collective and individual right to object to development that

is not ecologically sustainable and to expect that the Government will accept and act

on a reasonable objection.

(2) Everyone has the collective and individual responsibility to promote

ecologically sustainable development to assure dignity, freedom, security and justice

for all people.

Surely we have the responsibility to ensure that people in 100 years from now will

thank us for our actions today, and it is this that needs to be remembered by law-makers

as they determine our future.

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Our children and future generations have the right to enjoy the unparalleled splendour

of ancient forests. But we are denying them that right by our continued logging and

woodchipping of these areas and now, the harvesting of timber to burn for electricity or

to use in the production of silicon. A Bill of Rights and Responsibilities would mean

that we would have to call a halt to these practices before it is too late.

Nature has the right to exist in its diversity without human interference, and we have

the responsibility to ensure that we leave at least some areas inaccessible to vehicles,

instead of asserting a right to use a vehicle to explore every inch of this fragile land.

We have the right to breathe clean air, but how will we achieve that unless we all take

responsibility by, for example,

making an effort to use the car less,

making sure that governments improve public transport and cycle ways instead of

building more motorways, or even

not smoking in the presence of those who do not wish to breathe in cigarette smoke.

We all have the responsibility to ensure that our practices do not impact on the rights of

others, in the areas of not just the environment, but also social justice, nonviolence and

democracy. While I've talked mainly about environmental issues here, I want to take

the opportunity to reinforce the importance of the four Green principles, upon which all

our policies are based: social and economic justice, grassroots democracy, ecological

sustainability and peace, nonviolence and disarmament.

The Greens' draft Bill includes economic rights and responsibilities, and talks of those

relating to education, an adequate standard of living, work, legal assistance, freedom of

family structure and adequate child care. It includes community and cultural rights and

responsibilities which talk of those relating to the environment, as mentioned, those

relating to living in a safe society and those particular to Indigenous people.

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It also talks about civil and political rights, some of which are under currently under

threat due to the actions of the federal and some state/territory governments, such as

right to freedom of association, right to privacy, right to freedom of peaceful assembly,

right to freedom of movement and residence. Others include right to life, liberty and

security of the person, right to legal recognition and equality, right to vote and stand for

election, rights relating to custody, rights particular to an alleged offender, right to

reasonable standard of criminal procedure, rights particular to the victim, right to

freedom of religion, right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief, right to

freedom of speech and other expression, right to freedom from discrimination, right to

freedom from slavery, torture, experimentation and treatment, right to property, right to

procedural fairness and rights particular to a child.

But this list isn't exhaustive; at some stage, as part of the whole debate about rights and

responsibilities and constitutional reform in general, we will also need to decide the

question, for example, about the right to choose the time of our death, and the

responsibility of others to support that choice.

We all have a right to take part in a process that will decide our democratic, social and

environmental future. We need to take responsibility for ensuring that the outcome is a

satisfactory one, and to that end I call upon women everywhere to join together in being

involved in working towards just and sustainable solutions to the systemic problems of

our male dominated society.