By Athena Rogers.
Filing in to Federation Square’s riverside function room among hundreds of well-dressed professionals, it was clear that the expectations were high for this International Human Rights Day event.
The speaker for the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission’s Annual Human Rights Oration was Ron Merkel QC, presenting a talk entitled “Human Rights: Myths and Realities”.
As Merkel set out his issues for discussion – the rights of indigenous people, refugees, freedom of speech and same-sex marriage – his talk threatened to be a repetition of the usual sentiments lamenting the human rights situation of these groups. However, it was soon clear that Merkel’s depth of knowledge regarding the legal and political history of these issues would set this oration apart.
He spoke insightfully about Australia’s slow progression of limiting executive power, helped not least by the Whitlam Government’s introduction of the Sex and Racial Discrimination Acts.
… with Germany still paying reparations for World War II and Canada having spent billions of dollars on reparations for its indigenous population could a simple apology ever really be enough?
Returning to indigenous rights, Merkel drew poignant parallels between the discourse and realities of the Howard Government’s Northern Territory Intervention and the continuation of the policy under the current government. Lack of evidence surrounding its benefits, talk of “mainstreaming” Indigenous Australians and the rejection of all 97 recommendations put forward by the Little Children are Sacred report have characterised both governments’ policies regarding indigenous peoples.
Even Kevin Rudd’s apology was put into question by Merkel – with Germany still paying reparations for World War II and Canada having spent billions of dollars on reparations for its indigenous population could a simple apology ever really be enough?
Merkel then turned his attention to Australia’s “sad and tragic” refugee policy that is drowning in a discourse that bears little resemblance to reality – with talk of “illegals”, “boat people”, “saving lives”, etc. He alluded to the continuation of racist sentiments such as those that were held towards Jewish refugees during the World War II immigration boom and the disturbing revival of the shallow argument of not wanting to import the problems of other cultures through migration.
After speaking very briefly about the difficulties surrounding the right to free speech in the context of the Andrew Bolt saga, Merkel concluded with a discussion of the same-sex marriage debate. Quickly and easily tearing down each religious, political and cultural argument against marriage equality, he concluded simply that it is “almost impossible to locate a principle against it”. Nevertheless, he reminded us, it is still somehow acceptable to publicly take a stance, as our Prime Minister does, against same-sex marriage.
“If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me.”
With US President Barak Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron both declaring personal support for same-sex marriage and 11 countries supporting it through law, Merkel challenged our atheist, unmarried, well-educated Prime Minister to come out in support of what he strongly suspects she personally believes in, despite her political positioning on the issue.
Reflecting the overall tone of the talk – which was never overly optimistic – and unafraid to reflect upon the grim state of many human rights issues in Australia, Merkel concluded by retelling the Biblical parable of The Just Man.
As the story goes, the Just Man stands day after day in his town square relentlessly preaching of the injustices suffered by his community. While at first people listened to his teachings, after some time everyone became tired of what the Just Man had to say. When a passer-by asked the man why he continued to shout, he replied, “In the beginning, I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me.”
Whatever parallels could be made between the Just Man and Merkel’s tireless work towards defending human rights in Australia, Merkel at least had one room full of captivated people attentively listening to him during this oration.