I have been asked to talk about human rights in Australia and overseas.
The leaders in the post World War determined that what had happened in Europe would never happen again. They planned to build a better world. In 1954 the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was also ratified by the Menzies Government.
Under the Refugee Convention a person suffering or at real risk of persecution has the right to asylum in another country. This is a right to which all Australian Governments, post war, have been committed.
I never thought I would live to see the day when Australia would turn its back on people fleeing persecution and terror. Australia has been shamed in the eyes of the international community. CNN, BBC World make sure that the world is very well aware of our treatment and attitude to refugees.
A country director of CARE’s operation in Yemen wrote to me the other day asking how to respond to an often asked question “Excuse me, I am only a simple bedouin, but how does CARE Australia justify working with refugees worldwide when refugees are treated so horribly by the Government and people of Australia?”
Since then the Tampa incident has arisen and the world now knows that we are establishing camps for refugees in countries around Australia’s periphery. Many Australians have accepted this as defending Australia’s shores. I am concerned that both political parties support the policy. It is obscene that a wealthy country such as Australia is buying space in poor countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea to help solve an Australian problem.
Despite the fact that numbers coming to Australia are relatively small, 4000 or 5000, compared to over 400,000 to Europe, the best part of 100,000 to Britain and well over 100,000 to Germany, Australians have been told that boat people are queue jumpers, that they are illegal, that they are wealthy and have bought their passage. We should understand that there is no queue. The refugees in Pakistan face 5 or 6 years in the camps with no guarantee of finding an asylum country at the end of it. Over recent years the number of Afghanistan refugees has fallen by half. The front door is closing. Thus, Australia by its spokesman, has been depicted as a harsh uncompromising and inhumane country, so contrary to the reputation built over the previous 50 years.
In addition, after the terrible incidents in New York and Washington in the United States, a senior Minister suggested that this justifies Australia’s policy in relation to boat people, the implication being that it could be a terrorist route to Australia. The boat people are fleeing terrorism and they are fleeing Muslim fundamentalism. Terrorists would be most unlikely to seek to come to Australia by that route. They would face up to two years or more in a detention centre under the utmost scrutiny. Terrorists would be much more inclined to travel with impeccable papers and come to Australia by Qantas.
I again felt ashamed when I saw how our leaders reacted to children with life-vests on being photographed in the sea. We were told they had been thrown into the sea and that any parent who would do such a thing must be terrible indeed, the sort of person we would not want to have in Australia. But think of the other side of the story. The desperation that must clutch their hearts, they know from whence they have come. They know that in Afghanistan they have no future. Girls and women are not allowed to be educated and they are not allowed to work. Minority groups have been pillaged and destroyed. They have small savings but enough to buy their way to Europe or to Australia.
Is it not possible that they believed that jumping into the sea and being rescued by Australians and placed on an Australian boat would make them eligible to apply for refugee status here. How distraught, what pressure would they have had to endure to take such a step? A compassionate response would have understood the pressure and the desperation. Do any one of us know how we would behave if we had experienced their pasts? The immediate political Australian judgement was callous, brutal.
Australia is by its policies effectively denying such people rights to which we committed ourselves when we ratified the Convention relating to the Status on Refugees in 1954. These actions diminish Australia.
As a Common Law country Australians have been led to believe that the Common Law provides the best protection for the individual rights of all people. At this moment it does not operate in relation to refugees seeking asylum despite our obligations under the Refugee Convention.
Unfortunately it is not only beyond Australia’s shores that human rights are inadequately exercised. Australia’s early treatment of our Indigenous population was for many people too harsh, too brutal, too terrible in its consequence for them to comprehend. The clash at the frontier as white settlement pressed out was disastrous for Indigenous people.
Later, laws authorised the taking of part blood children from their families and from their mothers. The special laws effectively put Indigenous Australians outside the protection of the Common Law.
In recent years many advanced countries have decided that they need additional protection for the basic human rights of their people. Previous Common Law countries, such as New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom have now all enshrined a Bill of Rights in their law. We should follow their example and establish a Bill of Rights. Against that Bill of Rights, the actions of Governments could be judged and if necessary condemned. Those who wish to maintain freedom of action in Government oppose the idea of a Bill of Rights. They say it does not fit with our Common Law system. The experience of New Zealand, Canada and Britain makes it plain that that is not so.
Opponents of a Bill of Rights claim that the Common Law provides better protection for individual rights. The inadequacy of the Common Law in relation to Australian’s Indigenous population, alone demonstrates the need for a Bill of Rights. Opponents of a Bill of Rights also say that our rights would be diminished because only the rights enshrined in a Bill of Rights would be enjoyed by our people. That is sheer nonsense. Legislation establishing a Bill of Rights would make it perfectly plain that existing rights under the Common Law would remain in force and the Bill of Rights would establish additional rights or reinforce the provisions of Common Law.
Those who object to a Bill of Rights are looking to the past and to a different world. Perhaps they want no restraint on their power. We should establish that restraint. That we do not have a Bill of Rights is a significant deficiency in our own Constitutional and legal processes. I emphasise that initially at least it should be established by Parliament so that if experience suggests amendments are necessary they can be consummated without the difficulty of a Constitutional change.
Through much of the last century terrible things occurred. During the first world war in Australia we had our own problems. The Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, turned two referenda on conscription into anti-Catholic, anti-Irish referenda by deliberate choice, by a deliberate decision. He left Australia a legacy of sectarianism and of discrimination that endured for the best part of 50 years.
And in Australia Governments sanctioned the practice of taking mixed blood Aboriginal children from their mothers for at least 60 years.
Now we have seen how Australia treats desperate refugees seeking asylum despite our obligations under the Refugee Convention.
Discrimination on whatever ground is a great evil. Experience shows us that once it begins, it spreads. It is this group today, it is another group tomorrow.
The impact of Pauline Hanson on Australian policy has been unfortunate, perhaps disastrous for Australia’s reputation internationally and especially throughout our region. It has deepened divisions within the Australian community in serious and unhappy ways. Surely we can understand that we must act to end all discrimination and make it clear to our Government that we want all people treated with dignity and esteem.
There are many in Australia who have come from countries where persecution was rife. There are many whose forbears have traditionally experienced persecution. They above all should be able to smell its beginning and work to end it and treat harshly those who promote it and those who acquiesce in its consequences. If we do not re-establish the absolute need to treat all people with decency and respect as we ourselves would wish to be treated then we will face harsh and divisive years as we move through this century. A Bill of Rights would help to underline the importance of these issues.
I have great faith in this multicultural society and I know there are many people in many parts of Australia who understand how tragic and how unfortunate recent events have been. What we also must understand is that it is people of good will who must exert themselves and reassert the need for decency in public affairs.