Human Rights, Social Equity and Health – Mid-Week Review


On the opening night of this year’s University of Melbourne Festival of Ideas was titled ‘Human Rights, Social Equity and Health: An Australasian Pulse Check’ and featured speakers Arnold Zable, Professor Marcia Langton, Professor Paparaangi Reid and Julian Burnside.

The format offered each speaker a strict ten minutes to present their idea and win over the audience, who were asked to SMS in their favourite idea of the night.

The theme of the night was how to best incorporate diversity and difference in setting the course for a healthier and more inclusive society. Perhaps unsurprisingly, issues surrounding asylum seekers, refugees and indigenous peoples were the focus of attention.

Voice for the voiceless: The power of story

The first speaker of the night was author Arnold Zable, who embraced the competitive format by launching into a succinct explanation of ‘the power of story’ and oral story-telling as a human right. He spoke of the many story-telling workshops that he has conducted with groups as wide ranging as problem gamblers, bushfire survivors and refugees. After being encouraged to give voice to their experiences, participants overwhelmingly agreed that, where counselling made them feel victimised, story-telling let them become witness to their own stories – a sensation that was immediately empowering and surprisingly therapeutic.

… what distressed [Aladdin] the most was the possibility of the reporter not finishing the interview and that [he] would never be able to share his story with the world.

Zable’s belief in the power of story was demonstrated most poignantly through the story of Aladdin, an asylum seeker who had been in detention at Manus Island. In an interview, Aladdin had told Zable about how relieved he had been when an SBS journalist came to interview him while he was in detention. After her first visit, the reporter told Aladdin that she would be back in a few days’ time to conclude the interview. It was in these few days that Aladdin experienced the most terrifying nightmare in which the reporter never returned. Of all the issues that Aladdin was facing locked up in detention after fleeing his homeland for fear of his life, what distressed him the most was the possibility of the reporter not finishing the interview and that Aladdin would never be able to share his story with the world.

With this in mind, Zable’s idea was to promote any means for the marginalised to share their story, whether this be through workshops, publication or demanding access to those in detention. Only by giving voice to the voiceless will we arrive at a more inclusive society and discover our common humanity.

Self-determination and state intervention

Professor Marcia Langton focussed on the appalling state of Indigenous health and socio-economic wellbeing in Australia. She reminded the audience that in the mid-1980s the Indigenous population of the Northern Territory was one of the world’s most over-represented Indigenous groups in prison.

… some people living in Indigenous communities do not know what quality of life they have a right to expect and what standard of living each individual deserves.

While statistics such as these are inexcusable, what was even worse to Professor Langton, was the fact that some people living in Indigenous communities do not know what quality of life they have a right to expect and what standard of living each individual deserves.

To combat these injustices, Professor Langton suggested that all Indigenous health and wellbeing indicators should be published more frequently and made more accessible, measured more accurately and more consistently and must be published alongside established baselines so that everyone knows what standard of living they have a right to expect and demand.

Gap analysis: Indigenous health outcomes and government score cards

Professor Paparaangi Reid’s idea was also centred on indigenous wellbeing and statistical indicators, although she took a more bureaucratic approach to her solution. She suggested that all agencies that receive government funding should be required to report annually on the quality of their ethnicity data.

The right to self-identify one’s ethnicity is the right to identity and the right to be counted.

The focus on quality was very important to Professor Reid as she stressed the need for respondents to be able to self-identify when it comes to ethnicity and to be given the opportunity to give multiple, complex answers. The right to self-identify one’s ethnicity is the right to identity and the right to be counted. While identity and ethnicity are complex concepts, we are only doing others an injustice by questioning birth-lines and ancestry.

If we are truly unwilling to accept the injustices afflicted upon indigenous groups Professor Reid stressed, then we must keep accurate, quality ethnicity data that reflects each individual’s right to self-identify. It is in fact our ethical responsibility to do so.

The lost citizens: Fringe dwellers, exiles and outcasts

The last speaker of the night, and the audience favourite, was Julian Burnside. His idea, familiar to anyone following his advocacy work, was to end the waste of money that is mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

… politicians have never before won votes for promising to be cruel to a certain group of people.

He pointed out the absurdity of a policy that costs taxpayers $4 billion a year to essentially inflict harm on people who will, most probably, soon become members of our community. Even more absurd is the fact that politicians seem to gain votes from their cruelty toward ‘boat people’. He made the interesting observation that while our government has indeed been just as cruel to other minority groups, such as the stolen generation of indigenous peoples, politicians have never before won votes for promising to be cruel to a certain group of people.

His idea, in summary, was presented in three parts: firstly, to find a political leader willing to take on the issue; secondly, to let asylum seekers live in the community (mostly rurally) until their status is determined (thus saving $3.5 billion a year); and thirdly, to spend the savings on housing for the homeless and Indigenous communities.

While Julian Burnside’s idea was the clear winner, gaining a majority of the votes, the originality of Arthur Zable’s idea brought him into not-too-distant second place and secured my own vote. While the not-so-enthralling topic of statistics that dominated Professor Paparaangi Reid and Professor Marcia Langton’s talks may have been responsible for their modest share of votes, each of their ideas remained important and relevant to the challenge of securing a more inclusive society.

Read the transcript of Julian Burnside’s speech, or view the entire session at the University of Melbourne Festival of Ideas website.


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