The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre
University of South Australia
Charter of Rights – A New Social Bargain
Craig Foster AM
Wednesday, 20th April, 2022
Thankyou for the invitation to speak with you tonight.
It took many attempts, but I’m delighted to finally get underway and having played in the early nineties for the mighty Adelaide City Football Club, it’s always a delight to come back to one of my homes.
Having spent the past few years challenging some of Australia’s deadly policy impacts on asylum seekers and refugees and with recent, welcome acceptance of the New Zealand resettlement offer and release from the Park Hotel of the remaining 30 Medevac refugees, I have seen many aspects of our political, social and cultural life that needs seismic change in order to avoid the entire process again.
And in the context of existential challenges such as climate change it is going to take a new paradigm of lawmaking, political discourse and social inclusion if we are to act quickly enough to pivot to the new energy economy and particularly to retrain Australians.
We will briefly explore some of the drivers of our lack of progress on energy transition that are common to our selective lack of humanity and human rights transgressions.
And in the midst of an election, perhaps we might look at some of the present campaign commentary and policies that reflect the cynical nature of modern Australian political reality.
I am sure we would all like to just move on from the ongoing arguments about long-settled science on climate.
Or gender equality, Indigenous rights or truth-telling in history class, to name just a few.
My thesis tonight is that in an environment with damaging over-concentration of media and corporate influence on political parties, the only way to escape the interminable cycle of ‘culture wars’, ‘gender wars’ and ‘climate wars’ that clog our daily news cycle on issues that should be so straight forward, is to embed a Charter of Rights into Australia’s constitutional or legal framework and entrench basic protections for all.
This would free us all, restore dignity to many people whether Australian or otherwise and let us focus on the broader issues including a vision for who we are and where we wish to be in fifty years.
It is impossible to look up when all the screaming and division keeps our heads down and so many, hostage to emotions.
Reason, restraint, sensitivity, consideration for others, thoughtfulness and measured debate are required to solve some of the most complex and important challenges of our lifetimes but sadly we are stuck in damaging battles across racial, political, gender, religious and economic lines.
We need to find another way to have important conversations and a Charter of Rights would remove the space for many banal arguments that are a waste of all our time and energy.
Let us explore, then, some of the aspects of Australian life that would irrevocably change for the better.
Underwritten by a commitment to the dignity of every person.
Not a day goes by without more statistics on the avoidable deaths of elderly Australians from Covid, stories of the rise of those sleeping rough, homeless, of Australians needing charity just to eat tonight as food insecurity affects a growing segment of the population and of Indigenous kids as young as ten starting their pathway to a lifetime of incarceration.
Nor without the constant, draining and damaging ‘culture wars’ where public figures, politicians and media organisations aim to drag Australia more ‘to the right’, or ‘the left’ on border policy, social welfare or human rights, whatever is in their commercial or political interests and never with a single thought for the people who are cannon-fodder for this endless barrage.
Just in recent weeks, a Liberal candidate in the seat of Warringah, preselected personally and supported by the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, attacked the transgender community under the guise of sport in a cynical, calculated, dangerous and bigoted move that places already vulnerable people, particularly children who experience an extremely high suicide rate, at risk.
Supported by the Prime Minister, I remind you.
With refugees rotting and dying on and off our shores and another border-scare election campaign well under way where the shocking Temporary ‘Protection’ Visas that keep people in limbo and away from families for decades on end are being used to split the community, again, it’s important to understand that this whole cycle of demonisation, division, marginalisation and segregation is completely unnecessary.
Aren’t you tired of it?
I certainly am.
And the concentration of media in too few hands is an issue that eats away at every principle of an open, democratic society which should be contest of ideas, not only a promotion of them.
I see little difference between State-owned media and a State captured by one.
Throughout three significant, even existential issues in recent years, I have seen the corrosive impact of the News Limited agenda and am really worried about where we are, and where we’re headed.
Refugees and asylum seekers who were endlessly demonised and the linguistic infrastructure of boats and ‘security’ injected into the public mind, the pandemic in which a great deal of misinformation polluted the public space including from the Murdoch-led organisation, and of course climate change.
“For too long the climate debate has been dominated by ideology and extremism. It has been used as a political weapon, wielded by power players and vested interests and people looking to make a buck” said Daily Telegraph editor Ben English in October last year when News Limited made an editorial about-face, though not mea-culpa after decades of destruction of ideas and policy such as the carbon price.
Exactly, Ben, we are in agreement.
When it comes to the issue of refugee torture and ‘cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment’ under Australia’s privatised, rich list-inducing offshore prison system, the control of almost three quarters of the Australian media landscape has been a key factor in creating a social environment where many Australians have been perfectly willing to lock innocent people up for nine years.
Why not when we are constantly made to fear or hate innocent asylum seekers?
When we’re told they’re everything from criminals to terrorists, sexual predators to welfare cheats. A constant stream of propaganda that has infected the entire country. I know this because in my advocacy work over many years, I speak to Australians of all ages and circumstances about the issue and so many make the same, flawed, false, but clearly deeply held accusations and arguments.
Ideas they were taught to believe over decade, after decade of indoctrination.
It’s all misinformation of one type, or another and whether for commercial, political or ideological gain it’s divisive and infects the national psyche.
When we constantly turn people against ‘other,’ it’s a very small step to turn on each other such as when Indian-Australians were shamefully criminalised should they return home during Covid.
Whether it leads to Australians wanting to inject themselves with harmful substances to ward off the evil Covid virus, march the streets calling for the literal head of a State Premier, leave humans rotting for years or keep spewing Co2 into the atmosphere at the expense of our children and theirs, it’s all part of the same process.
If we are to talk about human rights and a better future, then media diversity laws are the first step on the path to genuine, public interest journalism, political accountability and reasoned discussions.
Several years ago, I went so far as to suggest to one of Australia’s richest new generation that the greatest contribution they might make to the country, and world, aside from paying their fair share of tax would be to purchase the Australian News Limited operations, place it in a National Trust with a wholly independent Board of Trustees and restore independent journalism.
It was a short conversation.
But what a wonderful contribution that would be.
In one stroke, I’d wager that we might restore our own sense of hope and goodness, as well, because the constant barrage of hate and discrimination against so many minorities, from Sudanese youth to our First Nations and the reconciliation that we need to heal the past has long term effects on all of us.
There is a path to a country where basic rights for all are a given and we can turn our attention and media commentary to more substantial issues such as where Australia is heading as a country, what our global contribution other than churning out resources is supposed to be or about how we can better leverage the brilliant capability that exists here in our, humanity and the planet’s interest.
A Charter of Rights is not only a mechanism to embed basic rights into policy and law but much needed to end to the cycle of binary debate, economy or people, borders or torture, social welfare or deficit Armageddon, women or men, by entrenching basic protections that means vulnerable people can rely on minimum services and mercifully, stop being weaponised to divide.
We might say that a Charter of Rights would underpin a new social bargain or contract, a centuries old concept of the agreement for the individual to submit to the authority of the State in return for protection of basic rights and maintenance of social and public order.
And with so many Australians missing out and struggling with basic protections, it seems apt to explore some of the expectations we might have that not only must be provided for each of you, but crucially that the State, and powerful media organisations could not undermine.
The human rights impacts of climate change are increasingly being prosecuted as a human right around the world with over 1,000 cases since 2015 from Germany’s Constitutional Court to the important 2015 ruling by the Dutch courts that the Netherlands Government had a duty of care to protect its citizens from climate change, in contrast to the recent Federal Court case in which the Australian Government successfully avoided a duty of care to future generations of Australians, as remarkable as that is.
With the capture of the major Australian political parties by the fossil fuel lobby and media sowing climate confusion and Government commitments based on as-yet unproven technologies rather than a just transition plan, a broad commitment to a sustainable planet as a right for every Australian whether at legal or Constitutional level makes perfect sense and would release us from this hell of the ‘climate wars’ we are still living through today.
And would take the issue out of the hands of Environment Ministers and place it in ours.
It’s our fundamental right to both live in, and pass on, a liveable world and to expect our Government to do everything in its power, with our money I might add, to ensure that is the case.
Surely, above all else, that is part of today’s social bargain?
While we’re on taxpayer funds, I commend the Greens on their report of today into the lack of tax paid by major multinational gas companies. 217 gas corporations made $77 billion in income and paid no tax in recent years.
That has to change.
We are entitled to expect that our Governments protect the environment, cease funding the continuation of fossil fuel extraction with over $11 billion in subsidies this year that should be germinating the new renewable economy and maximise our children’s opportunity to a sustainable climate in return for civil obedience?
The right to protest even at the disturbance of infrastructure and industries is a critical part of Government being held accountable by the people. A right that is worryingly and increasingly being legislated away, only very recently in NSW.
What are citizens to do (other than vote, of course) when their planet is at risk and the world won’t even pause to consider the demise of the Antarctic icecaps, or the increase in devastating weather patterns even as Australia repeatedly burns, and floods on catastrophic and record levels?
We saw the right to protest stratified when Scott Morrison was highly critical of Black Lives Matter and aligned Indigenous Lives Matter protests that he deemed dangerous and potentially a super-spreading event though held within public health laws and overwhelmingly masked.
I know, because I was there.
But when it came to so called ‘freedom marches’ that questioned the very existence of Covid 19, with no masks in sight along with wild conspiracy theories about 5G technology, well, “It’s a free country. People will make their protests and their voices heard”, said Scott.
Our right to peaceful assembly and association is a fundamental element of a functioning democracy and should be entrenched in any Charter of Rights.
Untouchable, in fact.
To the extent that this is inhibited, the power imbalance in increased and corruption festers.
Speaking of which, a substantive Federal Integrity Commission is long overdue and certainly on my expanding checklist to guide where my vote is laid in a month’s time.
There is not ample time tonight to list the myriad ways in which public money has been abused with impunity in recent years and real accountability means legal scrutiny, and penalties.
Politicians cannot be exempt from the same ethical expectations as any other industry, it’s obscene to argue so.
I hope you feel similarly.
I simply cannot rationalise that any politician, employed only to act in the public interest would possibly be against the notions of accountability, transparency and integrity in the expenditure of public funds.
But there does seem to be a great many.
Though in need of improvement, Australia has one of the world’s most effective public health schemes in Medicare which of course was introduced by this centre’s namesake, Prime Minister Bob Hawke in February 1984 and which must be protected at all costs.
There’s a whole generation of young Australians who might not know that pre-Medicare, one of the highest factors in personal and non-business-related bankruptcies was medical care and hospital treatment. Private health insurance was expensive, limited and many had to go without which often meant a choice between financial, or physical collapse.
When I see the prohibitive cost of medical care in the largely privatised US system, for example that entrenches deep economic and racial discrimination, I see at least one element of Australia’s health system and social safety net that we should be very proud of.
But access to adequate health care for the elderly is also a human right, or have we forgotten that?.
The shameful state of aged care was detailed by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in a sector which has had 18 inquiries or commissions since 1997 and yet is still riven by patient/person abuse such as physical and chemical restraints and substandard care.
The Covid pandemic exposed the lack of process, chronic understaffing and inadequate or non-existent training and elderly, infected patients were found to have been medicated and restrained rather than hospitalised.
What sort of country does this to its elderly?
Bring the provision of care for elderly Australians in line with international human rights norms and provide dignity for all.
And how about the million Australians on Jobseeker?
I was disgusted to see both Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese refuse to commit to an uplift in Jobseeker to a level where any Australian can not only survive, which is impossible on $46 a day at around 40% below the poverty line but live without ever-present housing and food insecurity, raise and provide for children and retrain and undertake education while not having to worry about where the next meal, or roof is coming from.
Poverty is another frontline in the endless culture wars we spoke about earlier and like refugees, a trap waiting to catch any unsuspecting political candidate who demonstrates too much empathy for the impoverished, such is Australia in 2022, nevertheless keeping people in poverty as a supposed incentive to work is not policy, it’s outright cruelty and staggering that we allow it to continue.
Every person has a right to housing, food and human dignity and every society has a responsibility to ensure these are provided.
And they should be at the front of the budget line, not the rear.
A Charter of Rights would ensure that today’s budget, whether in deficit or otherwise can no longer be used as an excuse for leaving behind our most vulnerable and in-need Australians.
And mercifully, we would have seen our last election ‘welfare-scare.’ Imagine that.
Australia is in desperate need of social housing. Again, I’d like you to reflect on what sort of country we are where hundreds of thousands of people, single parent families and the fastest growing cohort of middle-aged women are homeless or struggle from short term residence to another.
Australia’s social housing stock has barely risen in 20 years while the population has grown by 33% and whereas social housing constituted 6% of the property stock in 1991, today it is a shocking 4%.
I fully support steps to overcome this deficit and see the provision of housing for every Australian a basic requirement for any society to commit to. A commitment which should be non-negotiable.
Not even questioned, actually, just provided.
Women and girls have an inalienable right to equality, whether in education, access to training and the labour market, to be paid equally for their work and to services which make this attainable for primary caregivers, predominantly women, such as early childhood education and care.
And yet despite the initiation of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984 and the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women ) Act of 1986, again all under the Hawke Government, Australia’s gender pay gap persists at around 22% so that for every $10 a male earns, a woman takes home $7.72.
Consider that women are over-represented at the bottom of wage earners and men are twice as likely to earn $120,000 or more, and it’s clear that we do not have a strong enough commitment to gender equality.
Gender equality also means mechanisms to facilitate equal political representation including cultural and racial intersectionality, of course, and while I am pleased to see initiatives such as Women for Election that aims to educate a new generation, all political parties should implement a quota to provide immediate access.
I simply don’t have the confidence that in a context where the Prime Minister repeatedly says, ‘yes, women should be represented but not at the expense of men’, change will happen quickly enough.
Of the ten countries with the highest percentage of women in their lower or single house of parliament, seven have implemented a quota system. Australia has just 31% of female lower house members, ranked 50th in the world.
Since Julia Gillard was Australia’s 27th Prime Minister between 2010-2013, how many women do you suppose have been elected to the highest political office around the world?
The answer is 40.
Today, just one major Australian political party has a woman as leader or deputy, in this case co-deputy of the Greens, Larissa Waters MP. That’s awful.
In the last eighteen months alone, Sweden, Tunisia, Estonia and Samoa elected their first female Prime Ministers while Tanzania, Honduras and Barbados chose female Presidents.
And I have seen the positive influence of a quota as former Chair of Professional Footballers Australia, the professional player’s union.
In the process of a governance review in 2016, a quota for female representation meant that, for the first time, Matilda’s players had a voice at governance level which immediately and completely changed the conversations and perspectives for the better.
With outstanding management in intervening years and leadership from both female and male National teams, this began the journey to an announcement in 2019 of equal pay and conditions for the female and male teams.
That decision played a significant role in the wonderful Matildas now being in a position to properly prepare for the FIFA World Cup on home soil next year in 2023, a tournament that we expect that may have a very solid chance to win.
Representation carries access, and access means decision making authority and I can only wonder what that means for the next generation of female football talents who will inherit a set of labour conditions that will set them up for success at the highest level.
A Charter of Rights would certainly deal with the issue of incarceration and over representation of Indigenous kids in the justice system since no rights-respecting democracy can possibly think that locking children up as young as ten is in any way acceptable.
According to the UN Committee on Rights of the Child, the age of criminal responsibility that corresponds with psycho-social development is fourteen. Last year alone, 65% of the almost 500 children aged thirteen and under who were imprisoned were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, a rate of 17 times non-indigenous children despite making up just 6% of the population aged 10-17 in a cycle that too often condemns the child to a carceral existence.
The United Nations Committee on Racial Discrimination have rightly criticised our juvenile justice system as highly racialized.
It is, in fact, racist.
This is an issue of racial injustice and should be viewed that way.
We need to urgently find ways to enable Indigenous-led community initiatives to overcome patterns that entrench disadvantage from generation to generation and these principles should be enshrined in a Charter of Rights to protect the most vulnerable.
I am impassioned to be part of a broader anti-racism movement in Australia and particularly a grass roots-led campaign called #RacismNotWelcome for this reason.
And as a white, anglo, male, Australian I understand the privilege and access to power and pathways that I have had throughout my life.
And that as a member of the racial majority, I cannot allow Indigenous Australia or our minority communities to carry the entire load in educating the rest of us about the discrimination they face every day. Those with power, privilege and social capital must put our shoulder to the wheel to help lift up those without a voice and let them speak.
Racism is one part of why I led a campaign called #SaveHakeem several years ago to free a young Bahraini refugee and football player from Melbourne from a Thai prison.
As a member of the Australian Multicultural Council and acutely aware of the marginalisation at that time of our beautiful Muslim Australian community, who still face discrimination today of course, when Hakeem al Araibi got himself into trouble at Bangkok airport not only did I know that football and particularly FIFA would never act for something as trivial as a young player’s life, but also that Australia would likely find it difficult to care.
Particularly much of the media.
And that it would take careful management of the messaging to ensure that Hakeem was given the best opportunity to be freed and back with his young wife in Australia.
Sport provided an important shield for Hakeem, and this is its power in a country like Australia where it is such an important cultural institution, but so too was it important to show that a prominent member of the sporting and wider community was on his side.
I have learnt in recent years that this is called allyship whereas, back in 2018/19, I simply knew it as a responsibility to help where we have the skills, experience and power to make a difference. Whatever that positive difference might be.
That experience and network of contacts around the world developed throughout the #SaveHakeem campaign has been very useful in similar crises such as last August when we were able to evacuate the Afghan Women’s National Football Team from Kabul airport with the assistance of Immigration Minister Alex Hawke and Foreign Minister Marise Payne along with trusted Members of Parliament, Nick McKim and Zali Steggall.
I know there will be many in the audience tonight who similarly played a role in getting people out in that chaotic and very sad situation where Australia left many behind, and I am looking forward to the release of a new film this Friday night about 15 young Afghan girls of Tajik ethnicity who hid for several weeks in a single room while the Taliban searched house to house for them and eventually escaped to safety in Australia, aided by our Addison Road Community Organisation in Sydney.
A harrowing story of courage and terror, ‘Die. Or Die Trying. Escaping the Taliban’ is another example of Australians working together in solidarity with persecuted people around the world to overcome the incessant narratives about seeking asylum and recover our sense of shared humanity.
It’s also important that we capture these stories to let Australians better understand the people behind the headlines and the drivers and victims of human displacement.
Unlike Marwa Moeen and the 14 others, when I was a young player, among many as or more talented, no one ever looked at the colour of my skin or my ethnicity and considered whether I should, or should not be selected or allowed to attend school for that matter as is the case for young girls in Afghanistan today.
I had no barriers other than hard work in my career from junior National teams to 29 games for the Socceroos and this is simply not the reality for many young Australians.
We can all use this privilege for our own benefit, or for others. It’s up to each of us.
This is why I am committed to ensuring that human rights are embedded in sport to ensure that the slogans about inclusion, diversity and anti-racism are real and that opportunity is genuinely for all, irrespective of any difference.
We need to finally deal with our historical legacy of racism, understand how that has informed present day institutions and social structures and truthfully acknowledge frontier massacres and systemic disadvantage of Indigenous peoples that is now centuries long.
Informed and driven by Australians with lived experience of racism, the campaign is working with Local Government Associations to install #RacismNotWelcome street signs as a physical demonstration of the community’s stance and a catalyst to conversations and education about racism.
This process has been wonderfully instructive.
Whilst minority communities all around the country have shouted with joy and children written to say they feel validated and heard when they something as simple as a local sign, other Councils and Councillors have brought out the old trope that ‘there’s no need for signs because racism doesn’t exist here.’
The disconnect between the lived reality of citizens and the beliefs of community leaders is often stark.
Similarly to companies or any other institutions, if you genuinely have a safe space for non-white Australians to speak about how they feel and their (mis)treatment, about real access to decision makers and the corporate ladder, you’ll hear a very different story.
One that I hear every day.
But truly safe spaces where our bias, prejudices and views can be challenged without recourse are very, very rare.
Although the Australia LGA Council ratified the campaign over a year ago, one Council in Sydney, Cumberland City Council refused to adopt the campaign for this very reason.
One of Australia’s most diverse Councils with one of the highest proportions of Asian and Muslim Australians, this decision came just shortly after one of its own Councillors, Chinese-Australian Councillor, Kun Huang received a letter with the most vile racial abuse imaginable.
Astounding how far people will go to avoid talking about and acknowledging racism.
I just want to touch briefly again on the issue of non-discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, which is a human right along with that of ‘race, colour, language.. religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.’
It won’t surprise anyone that I oppose the recent Religious Discrimination Bill proposed by the Morrison Government on the basis that in a secular society, your religious freedom and observance is Constitutionally protected however, is rightly balanced against the rights of others.
Such as when religious beliefs cross into hate speech, vilification or where these beliefs lead to systemic discrimination and breach the central principle of human equality.
I respect all religions however the right of gay, lesbian or trans Australians to attend any school, institution, University or enjoy all this wonderful island has to offer should be no different to mine, or yours, in any way.
Equality is the inalienable right in a secular society and must be protected, in fact enshrined in a Charter that puts an end to divisive arguments that are completely unnecessary.
A fair go, equality and egalitarianism that are an ongoing project but one to be very proud of nonetheless all dictate that each of us has the same rights and in an ideal world, there would be one less debate that makes our LGBTI community a lightning rod for division and too often hate.
Before I leave you, it’s important to recognise the assault on human rights in Australia that is undoubtedly a reaction to successive Governments being held accountable to refugee torture, Indigenous stolen generation and sexual misconduct, harassment and bullying in Parliament, all critically important work by the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Earlier this month, the Global Alliance of Human Rights Institutions declined to reaccredit the Australian Human Rights Commission as an A-grade institution for the first time since accreditation was introduced in 1993 due to multiple appointments in the last ten years in contravention of an open, merit-based process.
This is extremely concerning as is the shedding of one in three jobs due to inadequate funding at the Commission and demonstrates why an overriding commitment to a human rights-respecting society is both so important, and challenging.
While imperfect, I shudder to think where we would be without the Human Rights Commission holding Governments to account and it is vital that it’s protected and adequately funded.
Finally, I wanted to show you something.
Recently, in speaking at the National Press Club, I made the point that racism, xenophobia and exclusion of non-white people has been a feature of Australian society since pre-Federation and that refugees are simply the latest group to be used for political gain.
Further, this period where we literally destroyed refugee lives is perfectly encapsulated in the putrid ‘boat trophy’ that sits in the Prime Ministerial office.
As ugly in design as it is in meaning, it symbolises hatred, suffering, death and the degradation of Australia’s humanity. That a Prime Minister would proudly proclaim the deaths and destruction of innocent lives as a ‘victory’, something to be celebrated and valorised is appalling in the extreme and says too much about Australia today.
I suggested that in its place, we might have a sculpture of an outstretched hand to signify support for all, anti-racism, a commitment to human rights and a promise to the rest of the world that we consider ourselves a leading member of the global community working to the betterment of humanity, and of course the planet.
Addison Road Community Organisation in Sydney, where I volunteer and am Ambassador, a most wonderful haven of goodness and social justice that fills as many mouths as voids in our social structures, thought this a good idea and arranged for one of Australia’s foremost sculptors, Tim Silver, to create a physical manifestation of what we see as a ‘new Australia’.
We will deliver this sculpture to the newly elected Prime Minister in late May, whoever that may be with a strong recommendation, nay expectation that the boat trophy be consigned to an ugly period in Australia’s history, never to be repeated and that it is time for the open, collaborative, globally conscious and humane Australia that so many of us wish to see.
This Australia has always been within reach.
We might say that we need only stretch out our hand.
Craig Foster AM
 https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-02-19/aged-care-deaths-covid-families-lessons-from-2020/100842196; https://agedcare.royalcommission.gov.au/system/files/2020-06/AWF.500.00267.0002.pdf.