Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A gift for our most vulnerable this Christmas

Our Christmas stockings are sometimes filled with not particularly useful gifts. A foot spa anyone? Novelty tie for Dad? Electric snow cone maker for the kids?

This Christmas, I would like our elected representatives in Canberra to give all Australians a really useful gift; A Human Rights Act. This is legislation to protect the human rights of all people in our community, and most importantly to give dignity and respect to the most vulnerable and marginalised among us.

Australia is the last major democracy without comprehensive human rights protection. A Human Rights Act, debated and passed by our national Parliament, could provide protection for the rights and freedoms which Australia has already agreed to protect through United Nations human rights treaties and conventions.
Australia has a pretty good record on human rights compared with many other countries but too many people are still falling through the cracks. A Human Rights Act would provide a safety net for those who have fallen through the significant holes in our current array of laws and government practice. It will help us to uphold people’s dignity, a common value across all religions and inherent to the ideal of a “fair go”. It will also help to identify when public policy is dividing us, as it sometimes does, into those who are “worthy” and those who are less than worthy.

Some criticise the development of human rights legislation and fear it will give power to minorities and legitimacy to their voices. They are right. If it’s any good it will. This is exactly the point of human rights legislation.

It will demand of government, the public service and institutions and organisations that implement government policy, that they pay attention to the effects of legislation on the most vulnerable members of our community - those whose rights are most often trampled by public policy that doesn’t listen to their needs and which is too often implemented by bureaucracies that don’t understand their circumstances - Indigenous Australians, those who live in poverty, people with physical disabilities and mental illness, carers struggling to provide for their families as they maintain their own health, the long-term unemployed, the elderly and frail, and people who live in society’s institutions. Democracy tends to protect the interests of the majority. Instruments such as this proposed Act seek to protect the rights of minorities.

Some religious leaders are concerned that a national Human Rights Act will undermine freedom of religion in Australia. On the contrary, we now have a great opportunity to enshrine, for the first time, the right to freedom of religion in Commonwealth legislation. The Uniting Church is not and should not be afraid of the consequences for a Human Rights Act for its own life - it is privileged enough to be able to negotiate for itself what matters to its future wellbeing. Besides which, the primary concern of Christians should not be ourselves but those most vulnerable. Self-serving church attitudes are rightly regarded by most Australians as hypocritical.

I hope for an Australia where policy will be developed with an eye focussed beyond the next election so that we can ensure the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren and all who make their home here. I want a country where civil liberties are taken seriously and where the diversity of religions, languages and cultures is regarded as a great gift. A country where everyone has a home, decent work, access to a good education and good health care and the opportunity to live lives free from fear, prejudice and violence.

Give me a Human Rights Act to help us achieve this over a novelty tie any day.

This article was first published in The Transit Lounge.

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