Still riding for freedom 40 years later – Podcast

Australian Human Rights Commission

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Gaps in our legal system around human rights protection continue to have a real and devastating effect on the life chances for Aboriginal people in Australia more than 40 years after Aboriginal leader Charlie Perkins first undertook the freedom ride, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma said tonight while delivering the 2008 Dr Charles Perkins Memorial Oration at the University of Sydney.

Commissioner Calma said the current federal government’s commitment to working in partnerships with Indigenous peoples rather than treating them as ‘passive recipients’ made the next few years critical in the struggle for equality.

“While we may see the first black candidate elected to the presidency of the United States of America in two weeks time, reflecting on our own progress in Australia presents us with a markedly different picture,” Commissioner Calma said.

“Unlike all other western democracies, we have no Charter or Bill of Rights in Australia – not for Aboriginal people, not for anyone,” he said. 

“Unlike Canada, we have no constitutional recognition of the rights and status of our First Nations peoples.

“If things were fine just the way they were in Australia, and we had a system of government where we were well represented, well serviced, and well protected, then maybe we wouldn’t need to have conversations about human rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“The reality however, is much different,” he said.

Commissioner Calma’s Charles Perkins AO Memorial Oration can be found online at

A podcast of Commissioner Calma’s Charles Perkins Oration will be available on the University of Sydney website at

Commissioner Calma pointed to state and federal government service delivery to Indigenous people that struggled to provide the most basic of services, as a sign of the pressing need to question inequality in Australian society.

He said limited engagement with Indigenous people in developing policy and programs, and a lack of formal representation for Indigenous people at the national level also signalled the need to enshrine a human rights agenda for Indigenous peoples in Australia.

Mr Calma’s oration outlined the need to treat poverty as a human rights issue and to formally protect human rights in our legal system.

He also called for the First Nations status of Indigenous Australians to be embedded in the Constitution, with a revamping of the ‘races power’ (section 51 (26)), to prevent the federal parliament from enacting laws that racially discriminate against Indigenous peoples – something currently allowed.

“For too long now we have heard arguments that a focus on Aboriginal rights takes away from a focus on addressing Aboriginal disadvantage,” Commissioner Calma said.

“This premise is seriously flawed. Poorer standards of health, lack of access to housing, lower attainment of education and higher unemployment can no longer be seen as anything other than human rights issues.”

Mr Calma called for a Charter of Rights that provided comprehensive recognition of human rights consistent with Australia’s international obligations and for a strengthening of human rights protections in our legal system.

“A major challenge that we face is how we ensure that our commitment to non-discrimination and equality, and to human rights more generally, is not something that is swept aside whenever it gets difficult or inconvenient, or when it is expedient to simply override this. You cannot ‘turn on’ and ‘turn off’ protection against racial discrimination whenever it suits,” Commissioner Calma said.

“Overturning the continuing non-recognition of our rights and creating lasting life chances for Indigenous Australians is the true challenge of our age.”