Dr Helen Szoke Addresses LV ExperienceBank Graduates of 2009

11 June 2010

On graduating from Leadership Victoria’s Williamson Community Leadership and ExperienceBank programs, participants become part of the Leadership Victoria Alumni. This rich network of leaders mobilise to lend their leadership skills to the pressing needs of our community.

While we will celebrate their formal graduation in December, June 3rd saw LV’s 2009 ExperienceBank participants transition to join the LV Alumni body.

Leadership Victoria would like to congratulate the 2009 participants on completing this transformative leadership program and welcome you to our 21-year-strong Alumni body.

The group was addressed by Dr Helen Szoke, Victoria’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commisioner. Her speech has been recorded below:

“I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land and to pay my respects to elders past and present.

Thank you for inviting me to address you this evening. I congratulate you all on completing your course with Leadership Victoria. I have thought what I might add, and I guess what I want to do is give you a sense of some of the challenges that we face as a community.

In doing so, I want to talk briefly about a human rights based approach and how this can guide us all to make a difference one way or the other. You have all made a commitment to be part of this program at Leadership Victoria, and that suggests that you already making important contributions in your work places in your lives as private citizens. This may value add to your endeavours and it is really built on the idea, to quote:

A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader, a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.

I want to focus on that in terms of what you commit to and how you touch other people, particularly as it relates to working with them to be stronger, happier and involved.

By way of introduction, can I first explain that the Commission that I work for has a number of different functions. We have an overarching responsibility to educate and provide information about human rights under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and about equal opportunity. We direct this work to employers, people who provide goods and services, accommodation providers, sporting groups and the public sector and the community generally. There are few part of Victorian life that do not feature in our stakeholder relations! We take complains of discrimination and attempt to conciliate outcomes, we undertake research on systemic discrimination and human rights challenges, we report annually to the Attorney General and then to Parliament on the operation of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities in Victoria and we also intervene in matters that are before courts and tribunals.

We actively promote a human rights based approach in our own work and the work of government. At its heart, this approach advocates working with people rather than doing things for people.

Put simply the human rights based approach which derives from policy development within the UN, requires attention to five things in particular:

Participation of the people who are going to be impacted by the actions, policies, procedures or services.

Accountability in terms of what is being done and how it is being evaluated and measured.

Non-discrimination and actively reaching out to groups and people who may not find it easy to be part of the main stream processes of having a say.

Empowerment should be the outcome of what we are trying to achieve.

Linkages to international treaties and conventions to help understand and interpret what your obligations are.

It is a pretty powerful check to use against what any of us do in our professional and private capacities in terms of making a difference. So, how does this apply?

After 30 years of equal opportunity laws and three years of a Charter of human rights, we want to see change and we want to see the laws used to help with those changes, and sometimes, governments, community and other agencies don’t always get it right. That is the call to action for all of you hear today – to help them get it right.

Australia is a country of opportunity!

Those of you who study economic history will know that living standards and life expectancy barely increased at all in nearly two thousand years from the Roman Empire to the Industrial Revolution.

But our standard of living – as measured by per capita GDP – has effectively doubled since the early 1970s.

For the overwhelming majority of us, we are enjoying the greatest burst of prosperity in human history.

Most would agree this affluence is a good, particularly if it is equally shared!

But I think we would all agree that material affluence isn’t the only important thing.

It is clear when we think about what sort of society we want to live in then we think about values, we think about fair go, and with think about things that are basic human rights – greater equality, a country without discrimination, a country that protects our individual rights.

If our country and our state of Victoria can’t afford to address these questions now, when our living standards have doubled in the space of half a lifetime, we probably never will.

Even though we are a wealthy country, we still face human rights challenges and abuses. I want to touch on some of this tonight.

In April this year, I saw a glimmer of light and optimism when I read the morning papers. This is no mean feat to find solace in the papers! It was Thomas Jefferson who probably a little harshly noted that:

The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.

The glimmer of hope came after months of reporting that seemed to set up an artificial ‘strawman’ in the human rights arguments.

We’re often told that the defenders of human rights – people like me, and perhaps some of you – are part of a pernicious ‘rights lobby’ that sets out to prevent people making the most of their lives because we want to protect their right to welfare.

Or that we want to prevent the police from keeping us safe by giving too many rights to law breakers.

Or that – and this is the most insidious example of this argument – we want to compromise Australia’s sovereignty because we want to protect the human rights of asylum seekers.

These criticisms of human rights are simply intellectually lazy.

And they’re all-too-easy to agree with.

The glimmer of hope came with the publication of a feature article by Julie Edwards who is the CEO of Jesuit Social Services, which is the Group that will benefit from the proceeds from tonight’s dinner. In criticizing the ‘law and order bidding war’ that is occurring in the current pre-election climate, she sensibly said:

‘But as the race for the law-and-order vote gets under way, political parties, the media and the broader community must stop and think about the long-term consequences of policies made In the heat of an election campaign – particularly on vulnerable young people.’1

What Julie Edwards was referring to is that prevention is what also should be firmly in our sights – not just reaction.

We need to be mindful of unintended consequences of reactions to current problems!

It’s easy to be against the idea of human rights – until your own human rights are violated.

Just as it’s easy to in favour of torture in limited circumstances – until you find yourself the one on the torture rack.

It is easy to think you should be able to employ who you want, until someone does not employ you on the basis of your race, or religion or age.

I want to look at an issue that is dominating the front pages of our paper, and the issue that prompted Julie Edwards to write her column – violence and the response to it.

Let’s consider the crucial issue of extending police powers and weapons.

Last year, the Victoria Government introduced legislation to give police new powers to direct people to ‘move on’ and to conduct random searches, including strip searches and searches of children.

Victoria Police has also began trials putting ‘Taser weapons’ into two regions in Victoria. Up to now, such weapons had only been issued to highly trained members of elite police units.

I am sure everybody would agree that we want the best protection for our police officers, who put their lives on the line for us.

But when it comes to more arbitrary police powers and more lethal weapons there are good reasons to be cautious.

In other countries and states the use of similar ‘zero tolerance’ powers by police has increased exponentially. They have also been used in a highly discriminatory manner, often escalating minor incidents into more serious ones.

Tasers, for instance, may sometimes be preferable to the use of firearms, but they can be highly lethal too. International experience demonstrates that over time their use tends to widen, and even cause avoidable deaths. We may be giving police more lethal force than they need, exposing them to criticism when something inevitably goes horribly wrong.

I’m not saying this will happen here, but international experience can’t be ignored.

The organization I lead, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, has some serious concerns about these new powers and weapons.

It’s easy for us in the face of new police powers to adopt the attitude that ‘unless you’ve done something wrong you have nothing to fear’.

But if we get the balance wrong between our safety and our rights, then we may all have a price to pay.

So here’s a first task for you today: ask yourself a crucial question. How would you feel if the first experience of contact with the police for your younger brother or sister was to be stopped randomly in the street and strip-searched for no other reason than they were in an area that was gazetted for stop and searches? Perhaps because they drew attention to themselves because of their race, or because of the way they were dressed.

And if we think about broader issues of discrimination and human rights, how would you feel if, having gotten ill, and you needed to use a wheelchair, you weren’t able to enter a shop, or got turned away by the bouncers from the trendy new bar your friends were meeting at, or you were turned down for that dream job you’ve studied and worked so hard to get?

And how would you feel if your younger brother or sister had been born with a physical or intellectual disability, and the school they’d set their heart on going to turned them away, saying they couldn’t afford the extra expense involved in educating them?

I imagine that like anyone else, you’d be angry and you’d want justice.

So here’s my second call to you today. Be vocal. Take part in the public debate. Write to your newspaper to put your view. If you hear someone threatening your rights and those of others on talkback radio, ring in and have your say. Discuss issues within your own community. Buttonhole your local candidate or senator.

Above all, don’t be a bystander. Because as citizens of a democracy we have rights, but we also have duties. You – we together – are democracy. Continue to build on your leadership positions in our society, as you are going to have an important role to play.

Luckily, here in Victoria we have strong mechanisms in place that give us the capacity to defend our rights.

The long-awaited new Equal Opportunity Act passed through the Victorian Parliament earlier this year.

Few Victorians are aware yet what it means.

But it’s a reform of historic importance. It contains measures for people to have their rights redressed. But, more than that, it puts the onus on us as members of society to be proactive about confronting and reducing the underlying causes of discrimination.

The provisions of the Act will require each of us to take action to comply with anti-discrimination legislation rather than wait for a complaint to trigger a response.

This is a big step forward – and the sort of progress that we as Victorians should be incredibly proud of – because discrimination isn’t just about the unjust decisions of wrong-minded individuals; it is entrenched in policies, practices, attitudes and automatic responses that often go unquestioned. Ending discrimination requires changing the way we construct our buildings, the way we organize our public transport, and the way we make decisions about who gets a job, a home and a place on a board or team.

The new Act will do this by providing more public education and information to the community to change attitudes.

It empowers the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to provide employers, retailers and service providers with the guidance about how to prevent discrimination from occurring in the first place.

More directly and forcefully, the Act gives the Commission new powers to initiate public inquiries into widespread forms of serious discrimination. Its investigations will aim to expose and eliminate damaging forms of discrimination right across our society.

And this leads to my third and final challenge for you today: Take up the responsibility for making this exciting new piece of legislation work.

We didn’t create it to give work to lawyers but to give rights and duties to you.

In your workplaces and your communities, it’s up to you and to me to eliminate unnecessary discrimination by recognizing it and speaking up against it, and when we are in a decision-making role, to do something about it.

Whether it’s ensuring there is easy physical access to your workplace for someone with a disability, or having equal opportunity employment practices, or standing up for someone who has been badly treated, you can make decisions that will directly benefit those around you.

Tonight, I would like to challenge each of you – to take up your mandate and be champions for human rights and equality in your sphere of influence.

Now, at the start I talked about the human rights based approach and I gave you a quotation that I thought depicted the type of leader I want to be. Now I want to tell you a story about another type of leadership:

There was a time in the nineteen forties when Vyacheslav Molotov was Soviet foreign minister. He was a shrewd man and a hard bargainer but worked for Joseph Stalin, who was The Boss. He was once overheard talking to Stalin by trans-Atlantic telephone during the course of some very intricate negotiations with the West. He said, “Yes, Comrade Stalin,” in quiet tones, then again, “Yes, Comrade Stalin”, and then, after a considerable wait, “Certainly, Comrade Stalin”. Suddenly, he was galvanized into emotion. “No, Comrade Stalin,” he barked, “No. That’s, no. Definitely, no. A thousand times, no!”

After a while, he quieted and it was “Yes, Comrade Stalin,” again. The reporter who overheard this was probably never so excited in his life. Clearly, Molotov was daring to oppose the dictator on at least one point, and it would surely be important to the West to know what that point might be.

The reporter approached Molotov and said as calmly as possible, “Secretary Molotov, I could not help but hear you say at one point, ‘No, Comrade Stalin’.”

Molotov turned his cold eyes on the reporter and said, “What of it?”

“May I ask,” said the reporter, cautiously, “What the subject under discussion was at that time?”

“You may,” said Molotov. “Comrade Stalin asked me if there was anything which he had said with which I disagreed.”

That is not the type of leader you want to be – empower, encourage participation, be accountable and don’t be a bystander.

Thank you

Dr Szoke’s speech can also be found at: