Joanne Knight

April 29, 2009

Democracy, the old-fashioned way

Filed under: human rights — joanneknight @ 9:29 am
Tags: , ,

Just as the grand old Windsor Hotel survived the wrecking ball and has been revived through an extensive restoration, so democracy in Australia is having new life breathed into it by the Human Rights Consultation. An Indian woman in a pink sari rises and laments the death of a soldier in war and proclaims the best way to protect human rights is to end war. A disabled woman from a peak disability body remains seated and advocates to protect the rights of disabled people to vote because the Electoral Commission has just decided that assistance to blind people to vote in privacy is beyond their resources.

Mary Kostakidis, one of the panel heading the consultation, said that the passage of a Human Rights Act represented the hallmark of a civilized society.

Various right wing and Christian groups advocated the rights of the unborn child and the right to express unpalatable religious views. One speaker referred indirectly to the controversy of anti-Islamic views expressed by Catch the Fire Ministries in 2004, as an infringement on freedom of expression and religion. Another speaker alluded to the recent debate surrounding the Victorian abortion legislation and the rights of doctors to refuse treatment. Certain groups see the requirement for doctors to refer patients to other help where they are unwilling to advise on abortion as an infringement on freedom of religious belief.

The variety and plethora of issues, causes and interest groups represented at the morning session of the Federal Government’s Human Rights Consultation in Melbourne represents democracy at its best. Numerous views of the pros and cons for a Human Rights Act in Australia were aired.

Our table heard a heart-wrenching story from a grandmother who has a grandson with a severe brain injury, unable to move or communicate, whose entire needs must be provided by another. Her concern for his welfare has fallen on deaf ears as she desperately seeks assistance in the bewildering world of human services bureaucracy and legal confusion. The concern that governments remain unaccountable was expressed over and over, as others articulated unease that a Human Rights Act would take decision-making out of the hands of Parliament into the hands of the judiciary.

As other countries, like Thailand, descend into turmoil because the people lack a voice to call their politicians to account, I felt proud of our country’s political system for the first time in many years. All listened with interest and tolerance to the views of others. Any disagreements were aired as differences of opinion, in a way that many politicians in Parliament could learn from.

While I felt ambivalent about the opulence of the Grand Ballroom at the Windsor Hotel as a venue, it seemed that the figures in the stained glass windows peered at us with curiosity and benevolence. The atmosphere of this grand room imbued the proceedings with an air of dignity which heightened the atmosphere of tolerance and rational debate.

The views expressed portrayed a Human Rights Act as the answer to many ills in our society, which of course it cannot be. We can only hope that the positions voiced will not simply disappear into some bureaucratic black hole but will inform the decision making process in this milestone in Australia’s history.

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