Top End Launch of New Matilda's Campaign

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Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

Last Friday, New Matilda‘s Human Rights Act Campaign launched in Darwin. On a cool, Dry Season evening, about 60 Territorians gathered at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory to hear some of the Territory’s most progressive and engaging community leaders. This was my first formal event after taking over as Coordinator of New Matilda‘s campaign from Nick Carney, who has been running it since its inception last year.

The message from the speakers in Darwin was stronger than ever: the rights and freedoms of all Australians need better protection, on a national level.

Sharon Payne, CEO of the North Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), stated that it was now more important than ever to protect individual rights and freedoms. In the past, Sharon has not always been a fan of a prescribed set of rights, but she changed her mind while working as a consultant for the ACT Bill of Rights. The ‘I’m alright, Jack’ myopia that she encountered, convinced her that the most disadvantaged in Australia needed proper protections in law.

A country’s worth should be measured by how well the most vulnerable are treated. In Australia, and not just in remote communities, the conditions for Indigenous Australians are anything but good. Just one mile from the Darwin CBD, in a town camp called One Mile Dam, volunteer legal assistants from NAAJA witnessed some of the worst human rights abuses in terms of provision of adequate housing, running water or electricity. Sharon pointed out the only difference between One Mile Dam and other Darwin ‘suburbs’ is that this one has only Aboriginal inhabitants.

Another speaker at the launch, Colin McDonald, QC, targeted Australia’s detention of asylum seekers as a further reason for introducing a Human Rights Act in Australia. Colin was involved in the High Court challenge Chu Kheng Lim v Minister for Immigration (1992) 176 CLR 1, after which, Australia’s mandatory detention laws were first cemented. Ever since, the mandatory detention regime has ensured that every asylum seeker arriving by boat undergoes an indefinite period of detention. Had we had a suitable protection of basic human rights spelt out in law, Australia would never have been able to go down the path of mandatory detention, and many men, women and children would have avoided the privations of immigration detention.

Charlie King, popular Territory personality and fearless advocate of community child care, reiterated the need of a Human Rights Act to protect the vulnerable and disadvantaged in Australia. He stressed the need for community engagement to improve the health and well being of children and young people. Charlie spoke from his experience working with children as well as adult men. He said that it was all too clear that a range of serious human rights abuses were happening on a daily basis across Australia.

Tony Fitzgerald, the Northern Territory’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, talked about creating a stronger role for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC), as well as a focussing on conciliation as opposed to seeking remedies through the courts. He also proposed that a Human Rights Act could form part of a treaty, recognising that human rights have a special importance for Indigenous Australians.

Territorian Senator Trish Crossin put the human rights issue in the context of the larger debate about government responsibilities and accountability. Part of the way in which New Matilda‘s Human Rights Act will operate is through a Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee, which must review the compatibility of new laws with a Human Rights Act as well as consider declarations of incompatibility made by courts. This Committee would report to Federal Parliament and to the responsible Minister. In this way, it will forge a constructive dialogue between the Executive, the Parliament and the Judiciary.

The Melbourne launch of New Matilda‘s Human Rights Act will take place at 4:30 pm on Sunday 13 August at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank. Speakers will include Susan Ryan, AO, Julian Burnside, QC, Professor Larissa Behrendt, Max Gillies, Hilary McPhee, AO, Sharan Burrow, President ACTU, Brian Walters, SC, and Associate Professor Spencer Zifcak. This launch will coincide with the release of the final draft of the Human Rights Act Bill. Everyone welcome.

Even though our formal consultation phase for this draft of the Bill is nearing completion, we continue to encourage and invite feedback.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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