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Renewing the commitment to a fair go for all: Part 1

By Chris Sidoti - posted Thursday, 15 March 2001

When I completed my five-year term as Australian Human Rights Commissioner last August, I received some twenty or thirty requests from the media for interviews about Australia’s human rights performance over my term and future human rights challenges. I now offer my assessment of Australia’s human rights performance over the past five years and of the human rights challenges we face over the next few.

My assessment must be based in large part on the experiences and impressions of my term as Human Rights Commissioner and on the law rather than on statistics alone. We seem to collect data regularly, even monthly, on every conceivable economic indicator but only irregularly and incompletely on social and civil indicators.

Without doubt the most outstanding improvement in human rights in Australia over the past five years has been in relation to the right to work. There is a human right to work, recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Australia has ratified. Work builds self esteem. It provides personal fulfilment. It enables an individual to participate in and contribute to society. It can lift workers and their families out of poverty. So the extension of the enjoyment of the right to work has to be seen as an important human rights achievement.


First and foremost, the extra jobs have provided higher income, and so less poverty, for those who otherwise would be dependent on social security. There is less income inequality between the lowest 20 per cent of income earners as a group and other income earners. Before we get too excited about this, however, we should note two less encouraging factors. First, the mean income of the top 20 per cent of income earners increased by more than that of the bottom 20 per cent. Second, the better relative performance of the poorest group reflects the improved employment situation. For those still out of work the income gap is unlikely to have improved significantly or at all.

For those in work, too, there are concerns about whether equality is increasing or decreasing. Between May 1994 and May 1999 (the latest figures available) average weekly ordinary-time earnings increased by 22.1 per cent for men and 21.3 per cent for women, placing men’s income further ahead of women’s income. During about the same period (June 1995 to June 2000) total company profits before tax almost doubled. Certainly the rich continue to get richer. Some of the poor are doing better than before but many of the poor continue to get poorer.

We are well placed to do something significant and permanent about poverty in this country. More people are enjoying their right to work than ever before. We must ensure that their work opportunities continue, that they have properly paid, secure and personally fulfilling employment, that their right to organise is not violated and that their workplaces are free from discrimination and harassment.

We must also continue policies and programs and develop new policies and programs that extend job opportunities to those still missing out. And we must tackle the equally important problem of ensuring that those who cannot work or cannot find work, especially single women with children and young people, are not sentenced to poverty for life as a permanent poor minority whose human rights are ignored and violated.

The right to work is the best news. The worst news continues to be Indigenous rights. Five years ago Indigenous Australians were by far the most disadvantaged of all Australians and their human rights were the most violated and the most seriously violated. That remains the case.

The basic facts of Indigenous disadvantage are well known – facts like:

  • life expectancy 20 years less than other Australians
  • infant mortality three times that of other Australians
  • half the school completion rate
  • more than twice the unemployment rate
  • less than half the average household income
  • poorer and more crowded housing
  • more and worse poverty

and so on.

Indigenous adults are imprisoned at 15 times the non-Indigenous rate. Indigenous people make up abut 3 per cent of the national population but 19 per cent of all prisoners – 60 per cent of prisoners in the Northern Territory. The central recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was that Indigenous people be kept out of prison. But they are now imprisoned in numbers higher than ever before and they continue to die in prison in numbers in excess of those that forced the establishment of the Royal Commission in the first place.

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This is part one 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 two looks at the rights of rural communities and Australians in prison, it can be found here.

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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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