Sunday, 9 June 2019

Speaking Up

I really have been straying out of my comfort zone lately. So much nonfiction! I saw Gillian Triggs speak at Newcastle Writers Festival recently, she was very impressive, and so when her audiobook Speaking Up popped on my BorrowBox I was there.

Because of my general head in the sand approach to life I only heard of Gillian and her work last year. She gave a keynote at a conference I attended, unfortunately I missed that session, but everyone there raved about it. Then I saw her in Newcastle April. Speaking Up was the overall best seller at the festival bookshop. Which is intriguing, as it's not a super easy read.

Gillian has had an extraordinary life and career. Born in the UK, her family migrated to Melbourne in 1958. Gillian remembers seeing refugees on the streets of London after the war, and feels her sense of social justice was forged by the war and her parents visions of freedom, non-discrimination and racial equality, "the values for which their war had been fought". She studied law at Melbourne Uni in the 60s and went on to have an international career specialising in International Maritime Law. She worked and lived in Texas, Singapore, Paris, London and Sydney. She has had two marriages, the first to the Dean of her law school, and with the second she became a diplomatic wife to the Australian Ambassador in Singapore then Paris. Yes I got a little bit jealous around that part. She had three children, the third of whom was profoundly disabled by Edwards Syndrome.

In 2012 Gillian Triggs became President of the Australian Human Rights Commission and "discovered her public voice and that she had something useful to say." She certainly has a lot of useful things to say. 
Human rights apply to everyone, all the time. Those whose human rights need protecting are not always socially worthy citizens. Human rights defenders do not pick and chose whom to protect and this is the point. Vulnerable people, usually minorities, and sometimes unpopular people all have the right to enjoy fundamental freedoms and respect as human beings. 
I really enjoyed these early, more biographical chapters, but the majority of the book is much more academic and scholarly. Law for the nonlawyer is quite often dry and boring. And how long can anyone really think about Senate Estimates? Gillian Triggs does her best to make this accessible for the average reader, but still my eyes and consciousness glazed over at times. Quite literally one day on a long distance drive.

Yet the subjects that Gillian Triggs addresses are interesting, and clearly important. Family violence, economic empowerment of women, constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians, Aboriginal deaths in custody, refugees, mandatory detention, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, youth suicide, metadata, marriage equality. Gillian wants nothing more than for us to join her in speaking up for human rights. 
Australia is the only democratic nation in the world and the only common law country that does not have a bill or charter of rights to ensure the freedom of its citizens and residents. Australia is also the only Commonwealth country not to have a treaty with its indigenous people...
Gillian Triggs dates the decline of human rights in Australia from 2001. A lot of things changed around the world that year of course, but she sites particularly Tampa, Children Overboard and September 11 as causing Australia to change course. 
How is it that the sovereign nation of Australia, one of the architects of international human rights agreements following World War II and a globally recognised good international citizen has regressed so far in failing to respect human rights in the 21st century?
It is shocking that Gillian finds human rights to have regressed further over her five years at the Commission. 

It's fair to say that most Australians (myself included) know next to nothing about our Constitution, and indeed we would hardly ever consider it, unless wishing to quote The Castle. 
The Australian Constitution does not prohibit torture, slavery or racial or sexual discrimination. The rights of children, the disabled or aged are not mentioned.
I guess none of this is too surprising given that it was set out in the dying years of the 19th century. Our Constitution does not even grant us the right to vote! Which is interesting given we have compulsory voting. Oh dear, perhaps I'm going to have to read that book too... (From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage)

I was especially interested in the sections on Aboriginal deaths in custody, on the Northern Territory Intervention, and other factors affecting Australia's Aboriginal people. Gillian recommends Ali Cobby Eckerman's poem Intervention Payback.

Juxtaposing human rights with child protection is a false binary. Australia can both protect its vulnerable children and respect the fundamental rights of our First Nations peoples to dignity and to consent to laws that affect their lives. 
Sadly, Australia can't always protect our vulnerable children though. I am glad to have learnt about the Uluru Statement from the Heart. What apart from politics can stand in the way of a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution?
Indigenous deaths in custody are reported to have increased 150% since 1991 numbering 340 in 2017.
While this number is still shocking, this sentence is badly worded. I initially thought it suggested that 340 Aboriginal people died in custody in the year 2017 which stopped me in my tracks. What she means is that 340 Aboriginal people died in the 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991. An appalling number. 

Similarly, the section on refugees were enlightening, and damning. 

Road signs warned that the (Christmas) islands giant robber crabs had protected status, asylum seekers are not similarly cared for here. 
Currently there are 65 million displaced people in the world, 1/3 of whom are refugees.
Australia's responses to this global tragedy have been exceptionally harsh, illegal and inhumane attracting international condemnation. 
I was reminded that Mandatory Detention was started in 1992 by the Keating government. It is interesting that in 2016 the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea found that detention of adult male refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island is in violation of its (relatively new) constitution. 

Naturally, Speaking Up gives us an idea of the work of the Human Rights Commission. I was most surprised that "Overwhelming people come to the Commission alleging employment discrimination." I had thought the day to day workings would be on more general social concerns, not specific complaints by individuals. But they do a lot of conciliation work. 

The protection of minorities is fundamental to our democracy. 
In the end Speaking Up is quite a lengthy argument for an Australian Charter of Rights. Gillian Triggs makes no secret of her opinion, she argues for it many times due the text and her final chapter is entitled The Time is Now, A Charter of Rights for Australia. Apparently it will help counter our "dysfunctional parliament and disempowered courts".
The real value of human rights acts lies in their symbolic, educative and informative roles restraining parliaments from passing laws that infringe fundamental rights and ensuring administrators do not impose policies that do so. When protections for human rights get legislative expression they form the scaffolding for a social structure that respects rights for communities and individuals. 
As a random fact I was fascinated to hear Gillian say that the UK had television soon after the war. I took that to mean that television started broadcasting there after the war, but the BBC actually started broadcasting regularly in 1936, and then British TV was shut down in 1939 at the start of WWII. Broadcasting then resumed in 1946. Television came to Australia in 1956 for the Melbourne Olympic Games. Not that I was there for that, but I didn't realise Australia at that time was a full 20 years behind.

Still young Gillian watched BBC documentaries on the liberation of concentration camps and recounts that her sense of social justice had its origins in her parents commitment to the values of freedom, non-discrimination and racial equality. "A choice is not binary in favour of one right or the other, rather as shown by amendments to the marriage act it is possible both to achieve marriage equality and to provide protection to those religious views that would condemn it."

There is no hierarchy of rights. One freedom does not trump another.
I had to rush towards the end to read this book. Borrowing e-audiobooks is a rigid process. You can't hang onto it for a day or so if you haven't finished with it. An e-audibook just vanishes from your phone (or device) at the allocated time. So I had to find 6 hours in a few days. I wasn't sure that I'd make it- especially when I have many other draws on my time (as we all do). I'm also halfway through the Aussie Noir thriller Scrublands, and trying to watch Season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale before June 6 when Series 3 starts. Plus living a life from time to time. I tried speeding it up to 1.25 but Speaking Up is dense, and you need to concentrate properly so that didn't work for me at all. I made my deadline with a few hours to spare.

1 comment:

I'm Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

"Human rights apply to everyone, all the time. Those whose human rights need protecting are not always socially worthy citizens. Human rights defenders do not pick and chose whom to protect and this is the point. Vulnerable people, usually minorities, and sometimes unpopular people all have the right to enjoy fundamental freedoms and respect as human beings."

In general, I think most people in America would say they believe that human rights apply to everyone, all the time. But confront a person, and I'm afraid we all have gaps, people who are excluded for one reason or another. I have friends who are completely opposed to abortion and yet feel comfortable with the death penalty. Many people here become enraged about the immigrants who are arriving in America illegally. And these are simply the most obvious examples.

We need a person like this woman to speak up for those who aren't able to speak up for themselves. I am glad she is out there.