Hugh de Kretser - Dinner Speech - Melbourne

One of our responsibilities as human rights lawyers, is ensuring that the voices of our clients - the people we work with - are heard in the public debates around their rights and interests.

I’m proud of the work we’ve done over the past 12 months to help put the voices of our clients at the centre of public debate.

The voice of Carol Roe - calling for reform so that no other family has to endure the tragic loss of their daughter or granddaughter – dying in police custody after being locked up for unpaid fines.

The voice of people like Aziz Muhamat or Nayser Ahmed – trapped for years on Manus Island - in Nayser’s case tragically separated from his wife and children living in Sydney – all because he arrived on a boat a few days after them.

Or the voice of 16 year old trans boy Ethan - who spoke out about the need for laws to end the bullying and discrimination that he experienced at his school in Adelaide.

Amplifying their voices is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the most effective way to bring about change – ensuring that those with the power to change laws and policies hear directly from the people affected by them.

I want to thank you for coming here tonight – for lending your voice and support – to help achieve a shared vision of an Australia where the fundamental human rights that belong to every single one of us are protected and promoted.

Tonight we’ll be privileged to hear the voice of Kirstie Parker – a brilliant Aboriginal leader who has been at the forefront of telling her people’s stories and advancing their rights.

And I acknowledge that were meeting here on Wurundjeri and Bunurong land and pay my respects to their elders.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s impact comes from so much more than the work of our staff alone – as talented as they are. It comes from the partnerships we have with the people in this room.

I want to welcome our pro bono, community, legal aid, ALS, academic and philanthropic partners. Our close friends and roommates at Justice Connect.

Representatives from the Victorian and Federal Governments.

Shadow AG Mark Dreyfus and state MPs Sue Pennicuik and Fiona Patten.

Justice Mark Moshinsky. The Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass, former Cth Ombudsman Colin Neave and Kristen Hilton, the Victorian Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton.

Our chair Cathy Branson, board members and past chairs – and I’d particularly like to acknowledge and thank Michael Kingston for his great contribution to our organisation.

Every single person in this room is playing a role in supporting human rights. We’re in the midst of a democratic and human rights recession in Australia and globally. Have no doubt, your support is needed to respond.

I also want to thank and acknowledge our generous sponsors The Saturday Paper, Caine Real Estate and Wendy Brooks consulting. And also our Sydney dinner sponsor Ethical Jobs.

I want to pause here to acknowledge Professor Gillian Triggs who is in the room tonight.

Gillian’s term as President of the Australian Human Rights Commission ends in a few weeks.

Gillian, thank you for all your tremendous service to human rights over your career.

The strength and resilience you have shown over the past 2 years has been inspirational and so important - and it’s so good to see you completing your term as President on your own terms.

The injustices Gillian exposed convincingly showed the lack of legal protection of human rights in this country and why we need a national human rights act.

The way Gillian and the Commission were attacked for doing so – for doing their job - highlights the erosion of our democratic system and how we have to take action to restore integrity. 

The last 12 months at the HRLC have been our best yet.
We’ve led nationally significant work that has:

  • Secured vital equality reforms for LGBTI Australians – from IVF and adoption equality to anti-discrimination protections – while continuing to play an important role in the push for marriage equality
  • Building on the success of the #LetThemStay campaign we’ve continued to ensure the safety of 357 people seeking asylum, including over 100 children, who are at risk of return to harm on Nauru and Manus. That’s a huge number of lives to be directly impacting and a huge amount of harm to be preventing – and I want to thank all the pro bono lawyers in the room who’ve worked on these cases. We’ve also shifted the debate on Manus and Nauru towards a political and public acceptance that they must close and the people there must be brought to safety.
  • Elsewhere we helped to secure a commitment to ratify the UN’s anti-torture protocol which will see independent oversight and inspection of every single place of detention in Australia; and
  • We’ve seen off further attempts to weaken our racial vilification laws.

We’ve recruited exceptional new staff, expanded our business and human rights work, opened a Sydney office and above all extended our impact.

Our work just this month really highlights the impact we’re having.

At the start of May, Emily Howie was at the High Court supporting Bob Brown’s challenge against Tasmania’s excessive anti-protest laws, standing up for the right of Australians to gather together and speak out on the issues they care about.

Just last week, Anna Brown stood with the Queensland Premier as she apologized to the state’s LGBTI community for the criminalization of homosexuality – an apology that we prompted through our work in Victoria and other states.

And on Monday, Adrianne Walters launched an agenda-setting report with Vickie Roach and the Change The Record coalition. The report highlights the massive increase in the imprisonment of Aboriginal women in Australia and its links to our failure to address child neglect and family violence – its draws on and builds on our work in the Ms Dhu inquest. 4

Youth Justice
But I particularly want to talk about our work in Victoria to stop the state from locking up children at the Barwon maximum security adult prison.

Over a decade ago in a previous job, I used to travel to Barwon to see adult clients on prison law issues – people convicted of serious crimes including murder.

I visited the Melaleuca Unit at Barwon when it opened in 2007 to see first hard one of the harshest and dehumanizing units ever built in Australia – designed to house people convicted of gangland and terror offences.

I never thought I’d be driving there in 2017 to visit boys as young as 15, locked up on remand at Barwon, because the government maintained there was nowhere else in the state to house them after the damage to Parkville.

Our work at the Human Rights Law Centre is national, engaging with all of the 9 federal, state and territory governments.

It means we can succeed in one jurisdiction and then push to replicate those good reforms in other jurisdictions – as we’ve done with safe access to abortion clinics, LGBTI reforms and more.

It also means we see the worst of actions by governments and can stop them from repeating in other jurisdictions.

Neglect and abuse in youth justice systems, resulting in unrest, riots and the transfer of children to an adult prison, had already played out in Western Australia, in 2014 and then in Northern Territory, in 2016.

For months we worked with lawyers and journalists in the Territory to expose the abuses in Don Dale that were highlighted in such a devastating way by 4corners - and we’ve been engaging with the NT Royal Commission to help to make sure those abuses never repeat.

That’s why we were so determined to stop Victoria going down the same path - and why we couldn’t stand back and allow children to be exposed to harm.

International law bans solitary confinement of children but here in Victoria we were locking up children for 23 hours a day for days on end in small concrete adult prison cells.

For some of them, handcuffing them whenever they were out of their cells. 

Denying mandatory school age kids access to proper education.

Giving them little, or on occasion, no time at all outdoors in the bleak exercise yard.

Threatening them with tear gas and dogs, let alone the extremely disturbing reports of assaults by adult prison guards.

At stake in this case was not just the futures and basic rights of the kids directly affected, but even more than that, what was at stake was the fundamental principle that as a society we should never give up on our children.

Not only locking up kids in an adult prison morally wrong, it undermines community safety.

Children in custody will be released at some point – the question we have to ask ourselves is, what do we want to focus on while they are detained?

Do we want them coming out hardened or do we want to give them the best possible chance of living a productive life in the community? Showing them that better options exist and giving them pathways to follow them.

That’s why is was such a critically important moment last Thursday morning when the Victorian Supreme Court ruled decisively in our favour that it was unlawful to lock up children at Barwon.

By 5pm on Friday night, no child was left at Barwon. All the boys had been moved back into normal, lawful, age-appropriate youth justice centres.

The transformation we’ve witnessed when boys have finally been transferred out of there is profound.

It should never have taken 3 Supreme Court cases and an appeal to get this to point - which is why we need to do more to build public and political understanding of the need for a safe, humane youth justice system that promotes rehabilitation for the children in it, the large majority of whom are themselves victims of neglect, abuse and trauma.

I want to end by reflecting on how our work on Barwon demonstrates why the HRLC’s model is so successful.

So many ingredients went into this case.

There was the ability to take action quickly – we filed the initial Supreme Court case only a few hours after the first transfers to Barwon.

There was extraordinary support from pro bono lawyers – many of whom are in the room tonight. I’ll name them because this was the hardest litigation I’ve ever been involved in and their commitment– the long nights, the weekend work, often under extreme pressure - was extraordinary – Brian Walters. Ian Freckelton, Ron Merkel. Matt Albert. Sarala Fitzgerald. Adam Macbeth. Peter Morrisey and Claire Harris. Thank you - and thank you to all those who worked tirelessly behind the scenes without any public recognition and without whom this case would not have been possible.

There was the strong partnership with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service who are here tonight.

Aboriginal people and their determination for justice played a critical role. The staff at VALS had the courage to move quickly, go on the record for their clients and trust us and the pro bono team. VALS were steadfast that no kids should be in an adult jail and had a living memory of the harm suffered previously when Aboriginal kids were transferred to a Victorian adult prison.

There was the partnership with Fitzroy Legal Service on the second Supreme Court case and appeal.

The willingness of people inside the system to speak out – at great risk and personal cost to themselves.

And the critical intervention in the legal cases from the Vic Human Rights Commission and the important role played by the Ombudmsan and the Children’s Commissioner. 

In line with our model, we integrated the legal action with broader advocacy.

Working with partners from Amnesty, STC to the Jesuits, we engaged in the public debate, drawing on the research and evidence about what helps rehabilitation, writing numerous opinion articles and doing countless media interviews – focusing on the Herald Sun and 3AW where these debates are often decided.

The penultimate essential ingredient was our independent funding. Independent funding is so critical to our ability to fearlessly take action and speak out, even as the Minister attacked us publicly.

And the final ingredient was two superbly talented staff Ruth Barson and Alina Leikin – whose child rights work on this case was truly mighty.

There will be more challenges to come in this space, but we should celebrate this result – and what is also a fantastic win for Victoria’s Human Rights Charter – finally giving it teeth – finally living up to its promise.

If only we had a national human rights charter… don’t worry, we’ve got a plan for that too.

I started by talking about the ensuring the voices of our clients are heard in debates about their rights and interests, and so I want to end with the voice of one the boys from the Barwon case who we got moved to Parkville a couple of months ago and who is due to be released soon.

We worked with him to write an article which was published in the Herald Sun explaining in his words why sending children to Barwon prison was a terrible mistake.

We’ve done wrong, I know that, and there is a price. But putting kids at Barwon or treating us like caged animals is too much. And it won’t work.

What’s actually helped me the most has been the opposite. Being shown some care.

Some of the teachers and staff who have treated me with respect have shown me that there are better ways of doing things. That people can make something of themselves.

Thank you for coming tonight. None of our work – none of our impact - would be possible without you.

Your support, your shared belief in human rights is critical to what we do.
Hugh de Kretser