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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 12085

Ms REA (9:19 PM) —Next Wednesday, 10 December, marks the 60th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is often said that as a relatively small Western nation Australia punches above its weight, a boxing term that ironically applies most appropriately to our role in the development and implementation of that particular declaration. Madam Deputy Speaker, as you can appreciate, only three years after the end of World War II it was significant that the major countries across the world at that time came together and were prepared to develop a declaration putting down the principles based around human rights.

The person who is seen as one of the most significant driving forces in the development and signing of that declaration is our former federal Attorney-General and former federal leader of the Labor Party Doc Evatt—a man who, at the time, was a visionary and whose compassion and eloquence obviously played a significant role in persuading not just a small number of nations but indeed all of those countries then part of the United Nations to sign up to what was probably one of the most significant documents of modern times. It is also important to acknowledge the role of Jessie Street, who worked with Doc Evatt. She was an Australian woman—although she was born in England and migrated here—who, up until her death in the seventies, was a great champion of women’s rights and human rights across the globe. In particular, at that time she was a great champion of Indigenous rights as well. She was a visionary who not only also contributed to championing causes of people within this country but indeed was part of one of the most significant declarations we have seen in modern times. I would also like to acknowledge the role of Eleanor Roosevelt. We know that often the wives of a nation’s leaders are seen as adjuncts or partners to their husbands, but Eleanor Roosevelt deserves great commendation in her own right for being once again a visionary and someone who, by force of her intellect and her power of persuasion, was able to see the coming to fruition of such a significant document.

I talk about this tonight because, as I am the chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, it is obviously a subject that is very dear to my own heart. I would also like to put on record that last Monday the Human Rights Subcommittee invited all parliamentary members and indeed members of various organisations across the country to participate in a forum here in Parliament House which was very successful in the discussion of human rights. Two leading academics in the field, Professor Ivan Shearer and Professor Hilary Charlesworth, both spoke very eloquently about the history of the declaration—where we have come from since 1948 to here. They also spoke very eloquently about the challenges for the future, and there are some. Human rights is one of those things that are an ever-moving feast and one that we should never take for granted or be complacent about.

I am really pleased to be part of a Rudd government that within only its first 12 months of office has already made significant inroads in championing the cause of the protection of human rights not just around the globe but, again, here in our own country. In that short time we have already committed to ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we have already taken action on the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, we are already a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and, of course, we are very much supportive of and developing a response to the rights of Indigenous people.

All of these points signal to us as a nation that we do have a role to play on the international stage—and not just because we believe ourselves to be at the forefront of Western democracies. Within our region and across the globe, we will always speak up on behalf of citizens of many countries who, unfortunately, these days are still suffering great intolerance, prejudice and oppression. We must remember that even within our own country there are people who are still discriminated against. There are people who—because of their physical disabilities, because of the colour of their skin, because of their gender—are still not given the equal rights that they deserve. We must always acknowledge that, whilst we play a role on the international stage, we must also be very careful of our own backyard and make sure that we pay due attention to human rights within our own country. I am so pleased to see that the Attorney-General, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Home Affairs, the Minister for the Status of Women and the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs have all contributed significantly through these particular UN institutions.

I would also like to say that the signing of these protocols and the support for these conventions reminds us that we must continue to acknowledge, discuss and debate human rights across the board. One thing that I think is really important is that the government has not just enshrined the rights of people that it feels are currently vulnerable; we have begun a process of debate and engagement with the Australian community about how we can even better protect the human rights of individual citizens within our country, about how we can look at what legislative mechanisms are available to the government, about what options we have, about a charter of rights and about which different sorts of mechanisms, enshrined in law, can go even further towards protecting our human rights. It is important that as a country we keep our minds open and discuss the options. I know that there are very valid arguments on both sides, but it is interesting that as a country we are prepared to be mature enough to engage in that debate.

All of this is so pertinent today. When we consider the events over the weekend, over the last few days in Mumbai—when we as a nation, when we as a globe, are faced with the incredible threat of irrational terrorism, of murderous and cruel people who have no regard for the sanctity of human life—it is important that we still ensure the protection of human rights. Whilst we must always oppose and condemn such behaviour, it is also important that all free societies try and get right that balance between protecting our national security, ensuring that we as a community and as a nation are free and safe to go about our daily business as we see fit, and, at the same time, ensuring that we protect our individual rights as citizens, that we protect the freedoms that those who drafted that declaration 60 years ago felt were so strong that they had to put them to paper.

‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance’ is a phrase that is not often attributed to those who are advocating human rights. It is a phrase used more often in a military context, as the motto of the Returned Services League. That motto applies just as significantly to our military endeavours as it does to each and every one of us, as elected leaders, as individual citizens and as people who are the champions of freedom and democracy. ‘To protect human rights and to ensure that all of us equally have access to the individual freedoms that we all deserve’—that motto just as equally applies. I am very proud to be part of a government that has put this on the agenda, that has clearly put its signature where its mouth is, that has signed up and said: ‘We want to be part of the international debate, but we are not going to pretend that there are not issues in our own home that we need to address, and we will do so in every way that we can.’ I certainly commend the anniversary and call on all members of this parliament to celebrate and commemorate in their communities such a significant birthday.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—Order! The time for the grievance debate has expired. The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 192B. The debate is adjourned, and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.