Balancing the Act: ADCQ newsletter -
Commissioner's foreword: Summer 2017–2018
In February 2018 Commissioner Kevin Cocks’ term of appointment will come to an end. Here he reflects on his seven years as Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner.
Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. This quote by Helen Keller has been vastly influential in my working life.
The Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act (ADA) has meant so much to me on a personal and professional level, as it has to many Queenslanders who have been discriminated against but have obtained redress — from a simple apology or change of practice, right through to structural changes that have dismantled institutional discrimination cultures significantly.
The ADA has provided an opportunity to discuss what human rights means to all Queenslanders, and especially those population groups who have been systematically denied dignity, equal opportunity, and been institutionally excluded from accessing fundamental rights. Things we take as entitlements — such as catching public transport, entering public buildings, being treated equally before the law, and having equal access to justice — are not available to everyone.
The next challenge for Queenslanders is to be bold enough to embrace human rights, and hold governments to the rule of law articulated in the seventeen treaties to which Australia is a signatory. The Commonwealth Constitution and successive governments have failed to provide a mechanism for human rights to be realised through everyday legislation at any level of government.
Queensland must support the development and implementation of a Human Rights Act. Twenty-five years have passed since the ADA came into law and it has made many significant changes for some, yet for others it has been restricted by limitations of the law. A Human Rights Act would not be a panacea for all the people all of the time; however, it would provide a framework for robust and difficult conversations to occur in the places where we live, work, and play. With a Human Rights Act, if a government created legislation not compliant with human rights, they would have to engage in dialogue with citizens, thus making their decisions transparent to Queenslanders.
A Human Rights Act would provide a space for people to have conversations and take action to bring about real cultural change leading to the continued dismantling of institutionalised discrimination— whether it be institutionalised racism, sexism, ageism, or ableism. A Human Rights Act would provide a vehicle to create further opportunities for the human rights of all Queensland citizens to flourish.
I inherited a commission that had a strong culture and commitment to the objectives of the ADA. It was very successful in managing and conciliating complaints, delivering training, and was well-networked. I pay tribute to my predecessors over the previous twenty years for their leadership that allowed me to build on their legacies.
My first day at the Commission was on the eve of Cyclone Yasi, and it coincided with a Commission team-building and planning event. Staff from the North were naturally very concerned about being separated from their loved ones. I took the opportunity to talk about how natural disasters generally affect vulnerable and disadvantaged people more than the general population. I talked about how often and how easy it is for the issues affecting vulnerable and disadvantaged people to fall off the agenda, and how important it is for the Commission to make sure that didn’t happen.
One of my staff from Far North Queensland later told me that they hadn't thought their job was about cyclones. But as a result of this conversation, they worked with stakeholders from vulnerable population groups and discovered that some vulnerable people were left behind in their houses, all alone, to face Yasi. The group then worked with the council to review the evacuation plan and identify weaknesses, so that the experience of those vulnerable people would never happen again. This is an example of the importance of human rights in practice.
A major contribution of my three terms has been to create an environment in which staff could focus, not on a specific point of arrival, but on the process of getting there. To be an effective change-agent in human rights, we must motivate each other to embrace our future as leaders and valued contributors to a fair and inclusive Queensland, and to be of service to citizens in a way that gives life and meaning to human rights. Equally, we must build relationships with a wide range of stakeholders.
As a leader who identifies as a change-agent, I've seen important changes reflected in all Commission staff through their passion, energy, and openness to letting go of old practices, and having the courage to embrace new ways. I believe strongly in creating an environment that values everyone and recognises that everyone has strengths. This is often referred to as a
strength-based approach , which relies on a few fundamental truths, namely:
- everyone has gifts;
- everyone has something to contribute; and
- everyone cares about something, and that passion is his or her motivation to act.
The art is to harness peoples' strength in a way that leads to coherent organisational functioning or meeting the objectives of the Act and the vision of the Commission, which is to build a ‘fair and inclusive Queensland’. This means being clear about our objectives, taking risks, being prepared for failures, and learning from those failures.
All of the staff who work at the Commission are passionate, courageous, and committed to being of service to all Queenslanders in the context of promoting, protecting, and defending your human rights. Collectively, we have influenced legislative reform, policy, and practice that contribute to Australia meeting its obligations as a signatory to international treaties, and these obligations are to respect, protect, and fulfil Queenslanders’ human rights.
In closing, I want to acknowledge firstly what a great honour and privilege it has been to serve as your Commissioner; and secondly, I am deeply indebted to all the staff who have worked at the Commission in my three terms for your individual and collective efforts to give truth to the concept of participatory leadership.
Finally, I will leave you with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that I think epitomises the work of the Commission, its partners, and civil society — Where Do Human Rights Begin?
Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person...