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Address to the Non-Government Organisations Forum on Human Rights, Canberra



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ATTORNEY-GENERAL

HON ROBERT McCLELLAND MP

ADDRESS TO THE

NON-GOVERNMENT ORGANISATIONS FORUM ON

HUMAN RIGHTS

PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

WEDNESDAY 22 JUNE 2011

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First, may I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we meet on - and pay

my respects to their elders, both past and present.

I am delighted to be here today to host the 2011 NGO Forum on Human Rights.

I’d like to acknowledge upfront the contribution that NGOs make to Australian

society.

You play an important role in raising awareness on a range of issues in Australia

through your contribution to public debate.

You provide an independent voice to the disadvantaged, the vulnerable and

marginalised. Respect for human rights is an essential element of social justice and

underpins many of the values that contribute to an inclusive society.

And if you look at the range of people and issues who are attending today’s forum -

it is important to recognise that your efforts make a real difference to the lives of

the people you represent, and the broader community.

I am grateful for the constructive relationship we have developed, even when we

disagree.

It helps us better serve the Australian people. I know we’ve asked a lot of you in

recent years.

In 2009 we held the most extensive consultation on human rights in Australia’s

history. Many of you provided submissions.

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This year, Australia has had its first ‘peer review’ at the United Nations Human

Rights Council - the Universal Periodic Review - and we asked for your input to help

prepare for Australia’s appearance and response.

I am pleased to report that we accepted more than 90% of the recommendations

and they will go into our new National Human Rights Action Plan.

Shortly we will be coming to you for help in shaping that Plan. As a first step, we will

be seeking your views on an initial assessment of human rights needs in Australia -

what we are calling a Baseline Study. This will be released shortly for public

consultation.

The views you gave during the previous consultations are already being used to

develop drafts of the Action Plan.

However, it is important that we do take the opportunity to seek your views for this

project, which is the purpose for consultation on the baseline study.

Australia’s Human Rights Framework

It is now over a year since the Government announced its human rights framework

and we have made significant progress

The Government’s vision is to implement policies that help us to create a culture of

human rights at all levels of society, from lawmakers to school students; from

employers to members of the community.

I believe that the measures under the Framework will set us on the right path.

The Parliament is currently considering legislation that establishes mechanisms to

encourage early consideration of human rights in the development of policy and

legislation.

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That means that for the first time, Ministers will have to, when introducing new

legislation, explain how the Bill they put forward is compatible with the rights in the

core seven human rights treaties. As you all know, these treaties cover a range of

civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights.

A new Parliamentary Committee will then examine and report its views about the

compatibility of legislation with Australia’s obligations.

The new Committee will also have powers to examine existing legislation and

conduct inquiries into other human rights related matters.

These measures are about better ensuring that the business of Government, as a

matter of practice and culture, considers how its legislation impacts on the rights of

ordinary citizens.

Policy makers will be supported in this transition through a new education and

training program.

Cultural change begins with practical actions.

My Department is developing a number of resources to educate Commonwealth

public sector officials on their human rights obligations.

It is critical that policy makers in the Australian Public Sector are armed with the

knowledge to drive programs, policies and legislation that are consistent with

human rights.

We also want those delivering services to better understand the rights of those

receiving the services.

Officials serving the public, from Centrelink officers to Federal Police, will soon

receive human rights training and practical tools to assist them in their work.

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But it’s critical there is strong human rights awareness and education programs in

the broader community.

Cultural change takes time, but solid steps are being taken.

In fact, human rights education is the centrepiece of Australia’s Human Rights

Framework.

I know there are a number of organisations here today that were awarded

Government grants to run community human rights education programs.

The real test of the strength of our institutions in protecting human rights is not only

whether injustices are few, but whether the lot of our people improves over time.

The experience in other countries following the Global Financial Crisis demonstrated

that when business fails and people lose their jobs, those in need multiply and

Governments have fewer resources with which to assist them.

While our economy is strong as many people as possible can look after themselves.

The revenue the Government then draws can be targeted to the most

disadvantaged.

Other developments in human rights

But of course it is not all we have done. Since we last meet a year ago, there have

been a number of other developments which I will touch on briefly.

We have strengthened protections against discrimination under the Sex

Discrimination Act.

Employers are now prohibited from discriminating against men and women on the

basis of family responsibilities.

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This will better protect families doing their best to spend time with their children

while keeping the bills paid and food on the table.

Breastfeeding is now protected as a separate ground of discrimination.

Stronger protections for employees and students from sexual harassment will mean

people feel respected, valued and safe in schools and workplaces.

At the same time, the Government is conscious that anti-discrimination law has

become too complex. We want to make it easier for people to understand their

rights and to meet their obligations.

That’s why we are working to consolidate anti-discrimination law into a single Act.

I know many of you are keen to hear further about this project, and to ensure that it

will also be an opportunity to enhance protections. I hope to be in a position soon

to announce further information on the project. But what I can say is that I am keen

to see this project enhance protections.

Soon we will have a stand-alone Age Discrimination Commissioner for the first time.

As our population ages, it is important that we have an advocate whose role is to

challenge the prejudices which cause age discrimination and barriers to

participation in society.

At the same time, it’s also important we protect young people from age

discrimination.

And for the first time in 13 years, Australia will also have a separate Race

Discrimination Commissioner. These additional appointments will also mean that

the Sex and Disability Discrimination Commissioners will be able to focus exclusively

on these roles.

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I know the disability community welcomed the commencement of new building

accessibility standards in May. It means that over time, the places we all want to go

will better accommodate everyone.

The first meeting of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples was held

earlier this month. The Congress will lead the way in advocating for Aboriginal and

Torres Strait Islander peoples human rights.

Further, the Expert Panel has been established to develop options on constitutional

recognition of our First Peoples. The Panel is due to report to Government in

December.

We think the Government’s new multicultural strategy The People of Australia will

help to promote a more tolerant and inclusive society that is less susceptible to

violent extremism.

I am very pleased to have been part of a Government that this year endorsed

National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children. The plan has my

strongest support.

For my part, I have introduced some amendments to family law. I will be working

hard to get them through the Parliament because they prioritise the safety of

children.

And I have announced more than $1 million in new funding for projects that help

prevent family violence in Indigenous communities.

I will continue to work with States and Territories through the National Indigenous

Law and Justice Framework to help make Indigenous communities safer.

Earlier this week, the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

Affairs tabled its report on Indigenous youth and the criminal justice system. The

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report highlights the pressing need for all governments to address these high levels

of incarceration.

Strengthening protection of human rights involves building a society that is just,

tolerant, safe and affords each person the opportunity to realise their potential.

While most Australians enjoy rights that are not available in many other places,

there is still more we can do, particularly for our most vulnerable.

The Government is looking forward to working in partnership with you into the

future to make Australia a better place for its people.

Thank you for coming today.