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Renewing the commitment to a fair go for all - Part 2

By Chris Sidoti - posted Saturday, 31 March 2001

This is part two of Chris Sidoti's paper summarising Australia's Human rights performance during his term as Human Rights Commissioner. Part one looked at the rights of workers and Indigenous Australians.

Indigenous people in rural and remote areas are the most disadvantaged by far of all Australians but many others in these areas share their situation, though to a lesser extent. The Human Rights Commission's Bush Talks consultations in 1998-99 and its National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education in 1999-2000, both undertaken by the Human Rights Unit under Meredith Wilkie, established that.

We entered into these major projects on the human rights of rural people for two quite different reasons. First, we were convinced that there were serious and distinctive human rights issues in rural Australia. That was apparent from other work done by the Commission from its establishment, including earlier national inquiries. The response to a small occasional paper published in 1996 confirmed our view. Second, we saw evidence of widespread rural alienation from the main political, economic and social institutions in Australia but no evidence that those institutions were addressing the alienation or were even aware of it. The phenomenon of Pauline Hanson's One Nation has to be seen in this context, not simply in the context of racism. It seemed to us that, unless the alienation of rural Australia was addressed, the nation would be seriously and perhaps irrevocably divided, at even greater cost to the human rights of rural people.


During three years of visits to rural and remote communities and extensive consultations with people there, we learned a great deal about the lives and experiences of people outside the capital cities. Australia outside the capitals is not homogenous. Indeed most regional cities are doing well economically and politically but often at the cost of towns and smaller communities that are nearby. But in general, with the exception of mining towns, the more remote the town or community the greater the poverty and disadvantage. The contemporary process of economic and social change, known as globalisation, may have long-term advantages but at this stage it is exacerbating the inequality and so increasing the alienation. Country people cannot see what benefit there is in it for them. But they are already feeling the costs.

The rural education inquiry showed the nature of the problem and the challenge required. Educational attainment in country areas is well below that in the cities. School completion rates generally are lower but they are particularly low in the poorest areas. The school participation rate of 16-year-olds (the first year after compulsory schooling in all jurisdictions except Tasmania) is around 80 per cent nationally. The five areas with the highest rates are among the richest urban areas of Sydney and Melbourne. The five areas with the lowest rates are among the poorest rural areas in the country. Nationally about 70 per cent of children complete year 12. In rural areas of Western Australia, only around 16 per cent of Aboriginal children do. In the Northern Territory, hundreds of Aboriginal children have little or no primary schooling and many thousands have no effective access to any secondary schooling.

I remain fearful for the future of Australia if rural disadvantage and rural alienation are not addressed, if rural human rights are not protected and promoted more effectively. One significant development since we began our work in the bush is that many others have come to share this concern. The metropolitan media are giving somewhat greater coverage to rural issues. The major political parties are conscious of the political risks if they do not win back disaffected country voters. Telstra is experiencing the consequences of rural dissatisfaction in its inability to complete its privatisation plans. Even the big banks are aware that something is happening although they are not yet doing much about it. The Bendigo Bank, by contrast, has been quick to respond, creatively and effectively, to its own benefit and the benefit of country communities.

There are answers to the problems of rural Australia. The Regional Australia Summit in October 1999 was a positive initiative of the Deputy Prime Minister. Its concluding communiqué offered practical and theoretical approaches that draw on the best possible research, analysis and experience. The reports of the Commission's rural education inquiry present more focused recommendations to address perhaps the most fundamental issue, educating young people for the rural communities of the future. It provides a blueprint for a new deal for country children. So we do not lack answers. Whether we see any significant action for country people, however, is another matter.

This year will be an important one for the bush. The expectations of country people have been raised by the Regional Australia Summit and the attention rural issues have been receiving. Their votes will be important, perhaps decisive, in the 2001 federal election. Both political parties say they have heard the cries of country people. Both say they support a greater effort in education. What will they deliver? The next federal budget will show the government parties' response. If it does not provide significant additional funding for rural education, then country people will know who to blame. The opposition's election platform will show its response. If it does not contain unequivocal, specific commitments to rural education, then the opposition's stated priority for education will have no credibility.

A failure to respond adequately to the needs of country children will damage not only the political parties. It will also, more importantly, damage the political process itself and the nation as a whole. For the alienation of country people will be reinforced, the inequality between city and country exacerbated and the unity of the nation undermined. But most seriously of all, the human rights of children in rural and remote areas will be further violated.


When discussing Indigenous rights I referred to the increasing numbers of Indigenous people in prison. This trend has affected both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The past five years have been years of more and more locking up and of more and more public monies needing to be spent on locking people up. There is no evidence whatsoever of a significant increase in crime. There is still no research to indicate that prison is an effective means of rehabilitating offenders. The increased numbers in prison, therefore, are not a response to any crime wave or to new research findings. They are the result of nothing more than political decisions to lock more people up, whatever the cost.

The imprisonment rate for adults has risen by 14 per cent in only three years. The rate of imprisonment of Indigenous adults is even worse. In June 2000 some 3.3 per cent of Australia's Indigenous adult male population was in prison.

These lock-them-up policies raise human rights concerns for prisoners. These have been the subject of a recent seminar sponsored by the Human Rights Commission: Prisoners as Citizens. The Commission will also publish a book on these issues next year to generate further debate.

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This is part two of an edited extract from a speech given to the National Conference of the John Curtin International Centre at Curtin University on 6 December 2000. In the next few editions we will continue Chris's appraisal of Australia's recent human rights record. Part three will look at the rights of refugees and Australians with a disability.

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About the Author

Chris Sidoti is National Spokesperson for the Human Rights Council of Australia and Visiting Professor at the University of Western Sydney and Griffith University.

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