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Human Rights Commissioner discusses his new job

PETER THOMPSON: Australia's new human rights guardian takes up his position on Monday, and if the work of his predecessor is any guide, there's going to be plenty to investigate.

Chris Sidoti, formerly with the Australian Law Reform Commission, has been appointed the new Federal Human Rights Commissioner, replacing Brian Burdekin. His appointment has coincided with the announcement of a Human Rights Commission inquiry into the separation of indigenous children from their parents - a tragic episode in the history of welfare in this country, which continued those practices until a few decades ago.

But human rights abuses aren't just a thing of the past either, even though Australia considers itself one of the more enlightened democracies, and Chris Sidoti has joined me in the studio this morning.

Chris, what are your major priorities in this new job?

CHRIS SIDOTI: My priorities really derive from the areas where I've got responsibility. The Human Rights Commission has got six full-time commissioners and a president. Each of the six full-time commissioners has a particular portfolio and mine covers civil and political rights, covers children's rights and, in particular, areas of discrimination in employment not covered elsewhere in Federal legislation. So things like age discrimination, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and in a number of other areas like that not currently subjected to its own legislation.

PETER THOMPSON: How many cases are open?

CHRIS SIDOTI: I don't know that at the moment. I understand there is probably somewhere over 200 active complaints that are in the Human Rights Commissioner's area, but that'll be Monday's job for me to find out what the actual situation is.

PETER THOMPSON: Now, although you will take a particular interest in some of those files, nevertheless, you have an overview role as head of the Commission, and in that sense what are your priorities?

CHRIS SIDOTI: Well, I think, perhaps the greatest priority is to build upon the work that Brian Burdekin did to bring human rights into the mainstream of Australian consciousness. I don't think we have a very strong tradition in Australia of understanding and supporting human rights, particularly human rights in the legal sense. In many ways most Australians have come by our democratic, liberal democratic system, very easily. We haven't had to fight for the sort of political system that we have as say, France or the United States did in centuries gone by, nor do we have the same sense of fighting for our national identity in the ways in which a lot of other ex-colonies used to do.

PETER THOMPSON: So has fighting, as obviously occurred in the United States but also in France as you say, is a fight for human rights important to the understanding of them?

CHRIS SIDOTI: I think it is. I don't mean by fighting necessarily violence, but certainly the contest of ideas, the need to identify and hold on to these sorts of ideas and find that they are part of our ingrained culture. It's very important that there has to be a struggle for human rights. It's not just something that drops down from heaven.

PETER THOMPSON: There's no doubt been a struggle for human rights by Aboriginal Australians and, of course, one of the inquiries, which is currently underway is about the separation of indigenous children. What good purpose is being served by that inquiry, given that the wrong can't be undone?

CHRIS SIDOTI: The wrong can't be undone but, I think, it's an important inquiry for two reasons: the first is that this is also a present problem, that there are still children who are taken away from their parents, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parents, under care and protection legislation ....

PETER THOMPSON: In what circumstances?

CHRIS SIDOTI: Well, generally in circumstances of child abuse and neglect. But it's certainly .. in most of those cases these days, I think, that our approach is much more enlightened and thoughtful than it used to be. But it's probably worthwhile still having a look at whether those laws are being applied in ways that have certain cultural or other prejudices or preconceptions so that whether in fact it's being done properly and appropriately now.

PETER THOMPSON: But you're not really looking at that so much as past practices in this instance.

CHRIS SIDOTI: I think that the inquiry into the taking away of children has to also look at present practice too. Again, I haven't yet started at the Human Rights Commission so I don't know to what extent those currently involved in that inquiry are looking at that. But one of my priorities as Human Rights Commissioner will be current practice in relation to children and if it's not going to come up under that inquiry I'll be interested to have a look more generally at the ways in which current laws are affecting children. But that's a current issue and it does have particular implications for Aboriginal parents.

There's a predominance of Aboriginal children amongst those who are State wards - out of all proportions the number of Aboriginal children in the population. So that alone causes us to make some inquiries as to whether that's appropriate or proper, whether the procedures are being followed in appropriate ways or whether we're looking at cultural preconceptions still being applied.

But looking secondly at the historical thing, I feel very strongly that unless we actually can come to terms with the past - the history of this country - we're not really going to be able to move confidently as one nation into the future.

And I think, a large and important part of that process has to be reconciliation with Aboriginal people. The taking away of children is without doubt the single most emotional issue and the most affecting issue for individuals. And unless we can actually come to terms now, as a present community, with practices that have gone on, because they continue to affect people today - they are not just past practices in the sense of saying this happened last century and so we can forget about it. Unless we can work out what impact it's had on people today and effect some reconciliation with them, I can't see how as a single united community, we can move confidently into the future.

PETER THOMPSON: Let's talk about children's rights because children have very few rights in law.

CHRIS SIDOTI: That's right. I think that our law still, predominantly, has a welfare approach to children. That's an approach that arose quite appropriately in the nineteenth century because of a lot of experience of child exploitation and it's still an important approach, but we need to move beyond that. I don't think we have yet got into our law of realisation that children have rights just like adults have rights.

PETER THOMPSON: Now, Brian Burdekin, your predecessor, was very interested in homeless people and in fact it is National Homeless Persons Week this week - what's been achieved, if anything, since Brian Burdekin's report, which recommended that any number of measures be taken to provide shelter for those who don't have it?

CHRIS SIDOTI: I don't know what's been achieved in terms of numbers on the streets, although I've been concerned to see reports just this week particularly from some of the welfare organisations that numbers are continuing to rise and I would certainly like to have a look at some of that work and just update the Commission's understanding of homelessness. It's now five years since Brian reported.

But so far as programs are concerned, I think there has been change. Both the homeless children's inquiry and the mental illness inquiry have resulted in significant Federal Government initiatives, many of which have been pursued at the State level as well to provide more effective programs on the ground. Now, in some senses that's meant money, but money doesn't solve all problems. Obviously there is still a major problem with homelessness. It may have got worse, if the information from the welfare organisations is accurate information, so, I think, that some review of what we've done there will be appropriate as well.

PETER THOMPSON: Yesterday, on our program we had a discussion with a Slater and Gordon lawyer in Victoria who is involved in the case involving landowners claims against BHP at Ok Tedi in Papua New Guinea, and it seems that legislation may be passed by the Papua New Guinea Parliament which would actually raise some issues about the rights of Australians involved in litigation over Ok Tedi, and in fact they may be breaking a Papua New Guinea law merely by suing for compensation. Is that the sort of thing which would interest the Human Rights Commission?

CHRIS SIDOTI: We would be interested very much in the Australian implications. We don't have a mandate that enables us to take up individual human rights cases in other countries. Our focus is firstly on cases within Australia but secondly promoting international human rights law. Certainly, if what Papua New Guinea is doing has an impact through the Australian courts, for example, through extradition procedures or through the enforcement of judgments in Papua New Guinean courts, well then it does have an effect on Australian law and we could quite properly look at it. One thing that is important though about the Australian Commission's role is the ability to assist other countries in the development of their own national human rights institutions.

Brian Burdekin was playing this role very effectively here and his new role at the United Nations is going to continue this. He's had a lot of contact with the Government of Papua New Guinea about attempting to establish a human rights commission there. I would hope that through my new role as his successor, I'll be able to continue a lot of that work and try to look at ways in which, not only can we look at the Australian implications for some of these sorts of things overseas, but also assist them to address them in their own home ground as well.

PETER THOMPSON: There's also a case in Queensland at the moment where a teacher representative .. there's a seven-year-old girl who is attending a .. what's described as 'normal State school' in spite of the fact that she appears to be severely handicapped and disabled. This has brought protests from both parents and also teachers at the school and it's an issue which might well come before the Human Rights Commission - it's already before the Equal Opportunity Commission in Queensland. Is that another of the sort of issue that you'd be dealing with?

CHRIS SIDOTI: I obviously don't know the details of that particular case, although I do know there have been other cases, particularly in the Australian Capital Territory of a similar nature. And there are very difficult questions that are raised about balancing the rights of the individual child and the rights of the other children in the school. A lot of work has been done already about this question about disability and education and it is an issue that comes regularly to the Human Rights Commission at the moment. It could fall within my jurisdiction as the Commissioner with responsibility for children's issues. It could also be an issue for the Disability Discrimination Commissioner who has got particular responsibilities in that area. One thing I'd like to say though is that, I think, that in the past there's been too great a tendency in the Human Rights Commission to divide things up into little portfolios where we look at things in terms of disability or race or sex or human rights in other areas. One thing I'd very much like to do at the Commission is contribute to a more integrated approach to handling these matters and so that in fact the balances can be met.

PETER THOMPSON: Good luck in the job.

Chris Sidoti, who is the new Federal Human Rights Commissioner.