Hugh de Kretser - 10 Years of Impact: Human Rights Dinner

This speech was delivered at the Melbourne Human Rights Law Center Dinner - 3 June, 2016

It’s so good to see more than 450 human rights supporters filling this room. People who share our vision of an Australia where the fundamental human rights that belong to every one of us are protected and promoted. Seeing this room tonight makes me reflect on Centre’s remarkable journey. It makes me think of the extraordinary things we have achieved.

I was honoured to be invited to join the Centre’s first board. We were formed in January 2006 with just one staff member - our brilliant and visionary founding Executive Director Phil Lynch - and an annual budget of just $180,000.

In 2007, I sat with Phil in a small box visit room at the Melbourne’s women’s prison meeting a smart, proud and principled Aboriginal woman through the visit room window. The centre represented Vickie Roach to take her case – over the removal of prisoner voting rights – to the High Court.

106 years after Federation, but only 18 months after the centre was formed, the High Court finally recognised that the right to vote was protected in the Australian Constitution.

Working with Vickie to fight for the right of all adults have a say in our democracy – this is what our work is about.

Vickie’s case provided the foundation for our next High Court win representing two young students, Shannen Rowe and Doug Thompson. Their case restored the vote for hundreds of thousands of Australians who were stripped of that right by laws that closed electoral rolls early after an election was called.

 Let me put this in perspective. The rolls for the upcoming election closed last Monday. If it hadn’t been for this case, they would have closed a week earlier. In that week, it’s likely some 400,000 or so people – particularly young people - will have either enrolled to vote or changed their enrolment. 400,000 people who could otherwise have been prevented from voting.

People who will now have a say in our democracy and whose votes may well decide who governs the country after July.

This is what our work is about.

There have been many standout achievements over the past decade.

We helped save Victoria’s Human Rights Charter. We successfully argued in the High Court that the Federal Parliament has the power to pass laws for marriage equality. And wouldn’t it be good if instead of holding an expensive, unnecessary and divisive plebiscite, they actually used that power.

We established an unprecedented national coalition of Indigenous and human rights organisations to tackle the crisis of Indigenous over-imprisonment. And I want to pay particular tribute to the work of Ben Schokman in this regard.

Ben is our longest serving staff member and has been a vital part of our success but he’s sadly leaving us next week. He’ll be just the 2nd staff member to leave in 10 years. We are all losing a deeply valued, trusted and extremely talented colleague. Ben, you will be sorely missed.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s model uses an integrated combination of tactics. We don’t conduct our litigation in isolation.

We integrate it with our advocacy in parliament, in the community and at the UN. We integrate it with research and capacity building as part of long term strategic campaigns. Pro bono support from law firms and barristers is critical to our model and our impact. We conservatively estimate that we’ve been able to harness over $30 million in support over the 10 years.

To the pro bono lawyers in the room – people like Kris Walker, Ben Kiely, Fiona Forsyth, Emrys Nekvapil, Alex Cuthbertson, Therese McCarthy, Brian Walters, Julian Burnside and so many more. Thank you. Your tremendous professional commitment has made Australia better.

Our model focuses on systemic change. Changes to laws, policies and practices to benefit as many people as possible. Our advocacy and capacity building helped to defeat reforms that would have effectively abolished our race hate laws.

And our legal action and advocacy – led by Rachel Ball and Emily Howie - secured buffer zone legislation to ensure women can safely access reproductive health services. These laws came into force in Victoria at the start of May.

For the first time in two decades, women can now access health services at the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic without being threatened, harassed or intimidated. There’ll be people in the room who have experienced this. These laws will mean no one else will have to – no friends, sisters, colleagues or daughters.

This is what our work is about.

I want to acknowledge the leadership shown on this issue by politicians like Fiona Patten who is here, by Jill Hennessy, Mary Wooldridge and Colleen Hartland and others. And particularly our client and friend – Susie Allanson who is here with colleagues Janice, Susan and Lou.

Susie and her colleagues have lived and breathed this issue for more than 2 decades – being harassed at their workplace, seeing patients arrive at the clinic traumatised and losing a colleague who was murdered in 2001. Susie, your courage, strength and commitment has been an inspiration.

And while systemic change is our goal – our work is squarely about improving people's lives.

People like Noel Tovey. Noel was 17 when he was arrested at a party in Albert Park in 1951.

He was locked up in Pentridge Prison, coerced by police into confessing to having sex with a man, convicted of the so-called offence of “buggery”. Noel saw his name vilified in the newspapers and for 64 years was branded with that conviction.

But in 2015, we secured schemes in Victoria and NSW to erase unjust criminal records like these that were imposed before homosexuality was decriminalised.

Earlier this year, we helped Noel to successfully apply to have his conviction legally erased - forever. Now 83, he says, “it’s good to know that I’m not going a die a criminal”.

And last Tuesday, Noel sat with us in Parliament to hear the Premier apologise for these homophobic laws and the trauma they caused – an apology prompted by our work led by Anna Brown.

Noel heard the Premier tell him, tell other gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and intersex people - tell our society that they are valued.

They are dignified. And that who they are and who they love should never have been a crime.

This is what our work is about.

Our board member Jamie Gardiner is here tonight – I want to pay tribute to the work Jamie has led on this issue for 4 decades through decriminalisation in 1981 up to the historic apology last week.

Our work is about people like Carol Roe. Carol was the proud grandmother of a beautiful 22 year old Aboriginal woman – Ms Dhu. Ms Dhu was a victim of domestic violence. She had no money.

Responding to a domestic violence callout, instead of helping her, West Australian police arrested her for $3000 of old unpaid fines from when she was a teenager.

Under WA’s laws, she was locked up in the South Hedland police cells to “pay off” the fines. She had never been in custody before.

Carol, 1300km away in Geraldton, called the police station twice over 3 days. Carol was told by police that she couldn’t speak to her granddaughter but that she was fine.

On the 3rd day, Carol received a call from police telling her that her granddaughter was dead. Ms Dhu hadn’t been fine.

She died a brutal, inhuman death from untreated pneumonia and septicaemia. Infections in a fractured rib - one of the many injuries she sustained throughout a violent relationship.

Twice over the three days she was taken by police to the local hospital. Twice she was discharged with doctors and police believing she was faking her injuries.

On the third day, CCTV footage shows police dragging her from her cell, paralysed, and slinging her into the back of the police wagon with an officer yelling "shut up" as she moaned in pain.

Minutes later she died. Nothing can bring Carol’s grandaughter back.

But a coronial inquest provided a chance to get to the truth of the failures that led to her tragic death. It provided a chance to reform the system that unjustly locks people up – Aboriginal women in particular – who can’t pay their fines.

We’ve worked with Carol and the WA Aboriginal Legal Service over the past 2 years through the inquest. Through her meeting with the WA Premier. To push for change.

Our work – led by Ruth Barson – has shone a spotlight on a system that is out of touch, inflexible and that increases the risks of more deaths in custody.

We’ve shown that there are alternatives – like in NSW where no one has been locked up for unpaid fines since the late 90’s.

We are doing everything we can to support Carol to make sure no other family has to endure the loss she has suffered.

This is what our work is about.

And finally our work is about people like Moubani. Moubani’s was born in the Royal Darwin Hospital last year - like hundreds of thousands of babies born in Australian hospitals every year. But unlike other babies Moubani was sent from the hospital with her family to live behind the barbed wire of the Wickham Point detention centre.

Why? Because Moubani’s parents came to Australia by boat seeking asylum.

Under Australian law, Moubani, despite being born here is classified as an unauthorised maritime arrival. Her family face mandatory removal to Nauru as soon as reasonably practicable - mandatory removal to conditions we know are harmful and unsafe.

So last year, we filed an urgent High Court case to stop their removal and to challenge the legality of Australia’s offshore detention regime.

With enormous support from pro bono lawyers and refugee agencies like the ASRC we filed similar cases preventing the removal of over 260 people in similar situations.

 Our clients include women raped on Nauru. Men and women who have been so damaged by our policies that they tried to take their own lives. Children and other babies.

Our cases have literally allowed these families to sleep without fearing guards bursting into their rooms in the middle of the night to take them away. They also forced the opening of the detention centre on Nauru – a small measure of liberty on an island the size of Melbourne airport. 

But, in large part due to some extraordinary retrospective legislation, we lost the main case earlier this year and the Minister promised that all of the families would soon be deported to Nauru.

So with our friends at Get Up, the Churches Refugee Taskforce and others we launched the #LetThemStay campaign.

Our campaign put the human stories of our clients – the faces of their babies - at the forefront of the debate – forcing the public and our politicians to confront the human consequences of our inhumane asylum seeker regime.

The response was inspirational. Doctors, teachers, Premiers, churches, the UN have spoken out and polling showed a 15% boost in support for our position. The appalling state of our political debate – magnified in this election – is a constant reminder of how far we have to go.

But we’ve showed that we can shift public opinion in the middle ground where policy will be determined.

And our work has given us a solid foundation to prosecute achievable, alternative humane policies - and this will be our focus over coming months.

For the 267 people, our work has meant a reprieve. All 90 children and their families have now been freed from Australian detention centres. Kids are going school in Auburn, Greenslopes and Glenroy without a detention centre guard in sight.

And for Moubani? In March she took her first steps in freedom and her family are now rebuilding their lives in safety in the Australia community.

This is what our work is about.

I love my job. I love the extraordinarily talented, committed, (sometimes) funny and passionate people I get to work with every day.

We’re proud of what we’ve done over our first decade but none of this – none of our impact - would be possible without you.

Almost every single piece of work we have done has involved partnerships that advance a shared belief in human rights.

Whether it’s as a pro bono lawyer, a donor, a community partner, a journalist, a volunteer, a sympathetic politician or more, your support is critical to what we do.

We live in one of the safest, most stable and prosperous countries in the world. There’s no excuse for stories like those of Carol and Moubani. I don’t want to be talking about them in 10 years’ time.

I want to be talking about how we achieved fair and humane refugee policies that provide safe pathways for protection for people fleeing harm. I want to be talking about the progress we’ve made on Indigenous equality and reconciliation – and on equality for all Australians.

I want to be talking about how achieved a national human rights act for Australia. Working together – we can achieve this.