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Canberra Today 8°/10° | Monday, July 4, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Give indigenous people a voice, says Kirby

Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby. Photo: Belinda Strahorn.

FORMER High Court Justice Michael Kirby is encouraging us, as a nation, to rethink our relationship with indigenous people.

The retired judge, jurist and academic believes that this ought to extend beyond a “Welcome to Country”.

“Giving an acknowledgement of country at conferences is a healthy and good step, but it doesn’t really change the economic and political condition of First Nations people,” said Kirby.

Kirby contends that we haven’t done enough to elevate the voices of indigenous Australians.

“For the life of me, I can’t understand the resistance to providing a voice into the federal parliament to speak for the indigenous people,” said Kirby.

“The fact is that their voice has not been heard enough.”

Kirby was commenting ahead of delivering this year’s Australian National Museum of Education (ANME) lecture titled: “Gaps in the tapestry: Indigenes, human rights and dangerous times”.

In his lecture Kirby argued that although Australia has many reasons to celebrate its democratic system, and respect for human rights, there are “gaps in the tapestry”.

“They include our failure, virtually from the start, to respect our Indigenous people, including by provision of a voice guaranteed by our constitution,” said Kirby.

Kirby, who retired as Australia’s longest serving judge in 2009, also points to the nation’s failure to adopt a national bill of rights or charter to uphold fundamental human rights.

“We don’t have a national bill of rights, we do have a charter of rights in Victoria, the ACT and in Queensland, but we don’t have a charter of rights elsewhere in Australia,” said Kirby.

“I think that’s something that should be on the agenda, we should be talking about it, what we would put in it and how it would be used in the education of young children.” 

Reflecting upon his time as a judge, Kirby expressed concern for the high levels of incarceration of indigenous Australians in our prisons.

“The percentage rate in the First Nations people of Australia is I think the highest percentage of any sub-group in any community in terms of imprisonment,” Kirby said.

“There have been various suggestions for ways that we could improve that, one suggestion is to increase the age of criminal responsibility, but these suggestions never seem to see the light of parliamentary day.”

Since his retirement, Kirby has served as chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Violations in North Korea, as a commissioner of the UNAIDS Lancet Commission on AIDS, the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Access to Essential Medicines, and the UNAIDS/OHCHR’s panel on overreach of criminal law.

In 1991, Kirby was awarded the Human Rights Medal and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC). More recently, he has been serving as co-chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association.

He is also an honorary visiting professor at 12 universities. 

As a product of Strathfield North Public School and subsequently Fort Street High School, Kirby is a champion of public education.

“My school education was entirely in public schools,” Kirby said.

“I’m a great supporter of public education because it tends to get a little bit neglected because of the fact that a lot of people who are in politics have gone to private or religious schools.”

He has identified the need for greater critical thinking in our educational institutions.

“When I was growing up, we didn’t really question some of the ways we dealt with issues such as the denial of land rights to Aboriginal people in Australia, and the absence of a treaty,” Kirby said.

“We were proud that we were British people who developed this continent and we didn’t ever think that in one sense we owed a duty of trusteeship for the indigenous people for depriving them of their economic benefits of being the First Nations people.”

The hope is with a community that is better equipped to critically analyse things, it would in turn lead to better decision makers.

“We have to improve the way we practice democracy,” Kirby said.

“One thing we could do is encourage politicians to question things that are not questioned by most people.”

Kirby has also reminded us that the recent events in the Ukraine suggests that the threat posed by nuclear weapons remains very real.

“Getting some more effective controls over nuclear weapons and disposing of the huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons before somebody accidentally or deliberately uses them is a very important subject and we should be talking about it,” Kirby said.

He lamented the fact that these matters were not receiving as much attention in the election campaign that they deserve.

“Politics today tends to be a search for the winner and for the values of the people in the outlying suburbs, which are the swinging seats, which decide who will have government, and that tends to focus on a very small range of subjects and not subjects that will upset people,” said Kirby.

“Whereas the big issues at the moment, I think, are how we are treating our indigenous people, how we are dealing with universal human rights, how we are dealing with issues of equality and justice and how we are dealing as a nation with the problem of nuclear weapons.”

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Thank you,

Ian Meikle, editor

Belinda Strahorn

Belinda Strahorn

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