Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Attorney-General’s Non-Governmental Organisation Forum on Domestic Human Rights, Canberra

Location: Canberra



Good morning everyone and I thank the Attorney-General for inviting me to join you today.

This is the land of the Ngunnawal people – I honour their culture, traditions and wisdom and pay my respects to their Elders, past and present.

It’s great to be here this morning. There are some familiar faces in the room, but also many new to me. So I look forward to meeting some of you during morning tea and hope that this occasion might mark the beginning of an ongoing working relationship.

I know that the Attorney General finds these forums with you to be a welcome and refreshing exchange of ideas on how best to protect human rights in Australia.

It’s this kind of robust dialogue – where differing positions can be freely debated in a respectful environment – that is essential for finding the best solutions.

And that’s really why I wanted to come and talk with you today.

I know that the Attorney has spoken with you on previous occasions about the government’s social inclusion agenda, and how it’s not only a vision for Australia but also a blueprint for a new way of working.

This new way of working recognises that complex problems cannot be solved by individual actors acting alone. The problems that are wound up into intergenerational, deep exclusion are just too complicated for that. Far beyond the powers of government alone to fix – even if we did manage to work in a joined-up, coordinated way!

We know that as government, our reach is limited. And we recognise that often, it’s not the government that the most vulnerable people turn to when times get tough. Instead it’s to the Salvos or Red Cross, the community legal centre, the local community or cultural group, the church or mosque, the disability support group – in short, to the organisations you represent.

So your organisations are fundamental to achieving our social inclusion vision. It is a vision of an Australia where all of us have the opportunity and capability to learn, work, engage and, perhaps most importantly of all, have a voice. To have a say in the decisions that affect us and to be heard when we speak out against the places, people or circumstances that prevent our full participation in the richness of Australian life.

We recognise that we need the expertise of organisations such as yours, as well as your connections with the people with whom government can so quickly lose touch.

So establishing a respectful and productive working relationship with non government organisations is at the very centre of our social inclusion approach to addressing deep disadvantage.

To slightly misquote Shakespeare – “the course of government –
non profit sector relationships never did run smooth.”

It’s no secret that there have been some difficult times in the relationship.

The past ten years in particular, were characterised by frustration and a growing mistrust in the relationship that was exemplified by the former government’s undermining of the sector’s right to advocate.

To quote Joan Staples from the University of NSW Law Faculty – “The Howard decade from 1996 saw a notable silencing of the voices of NGOs.” A range of mechanisms was used to dampen advocacy including defunding, forced amalgamations and contract clauses that prevented organisations from speaking to the media.

Joan concludes that “All of these mechanisms targeted the public advocacy of NGOs” and muffled the volume of the sector’s voice.

This was a pretty low moment in the government – non profit relationship – when those who spoke up for vulnerable and disadvantage people got shouted down.

And even before we came to government in 2007, we had made clear our intention to change this.

Specifically, we promised to consult with the non profit – or third – sector on the possibility of developing a partnership agreement between us, that would form the foundation for a new way of working. A way of working founded in mutual respect.

These kinds of partnership agreements are often called “compacts” and so we began to refer to a “national compact” in our discussions, in the spirit of other such agreements overseas and in order to distinguish it from pre-existing state and territory compacts.

We’ve reached about the half-way point in our development of the national compact.

Last year we commission the Australian Council of Social Services to run an initial series of consultations around the country. The objective of the consultations was to gauge the level of support in the sector for embarking on the development of a compact. And an expert panel of invited sector leaders helped guide the process.

These consultations revealed overwhelming support for a compact that would reset the relationship with government. It also recognised the wider development agenda for the third sector that is underway which is about examining the regulatory framework including harmonisation of state and territory legislation and sector capacity. A stronger relationship will enable us to work together effectively as we work through these complex but important issues.

The next step was to shape up what the compact would actually look like and what it would contain.

In May this year, Minister Macklin and I established the National Compact Joint Taskforce which included representatives from government agencies, non profit organisations, the ACTU and local government, to develop a draft compact framework that could be taken out for consultation. The framework outlines a set of principles that will govern the new relationship and identifies potential priority areas for action by both government and the sector that will give life to the principles.

The framework, in the form of a consultation paper, was released this week for a consultation period of around 3 months. There are many ways that people can comment on the paper, including through an online forum that I hope each of you will get involved in.

In fact, one of the reasons why I was so keen to come and speak to you today is that I’d like to draw upon your expertise around two specific aspects of the compact.

One of these is about the principles governing the way in which we work together. One of the principles in the draft compact relates to inclusiveness. The concepts captured within this principle are:

  • open communication and trusting relationships
  • the importance of advocacy by the Third Sector
  • genuine consultation that acknowledges constraints as well as opportunities; and
  • the importance of real participation and inclusion of individuals and communities.

The message we’ve been hearing during our discussions with the sector is that, although the government has removed the “gag clauses” in contracts and reiterated the importance of the sector’s advocacy role, many in the sector feel there is a need to go further.

They believe that the compact should state loud and clear that advocating for change and debating public policies are critical roles for the sector.

Flowing on from this, the consultation paper identifies some possible actions that both sides could take to implement the intent of the inclusiveness principle, and the advocacy aspects in particular. For example, protecting the right to advocacy, irrespective of any funding relationship, and developing tools to support advocacy and build pathways for advocacy.

I’d like to request your assistance, acknowledging the considerable expertise here today in advocacy for human rights, in crafting the finer detail of the actions around advocacy that will be included in the final compact. And also, to guide our thinking around how we capture respect for human rights in the compact more broadly.

For example, two week ago we acceded to the Optional Protocol to the Disabilities Convention. The question I would like to pose to you is this. How do we embed the rights contained in this international human rights instrument into the compact? In other words, how can we ensure these international human rights obligations guide the way government and the sector work together?

This again, is your area of expertise and one where I hope you’ll share some of your views during this consultation period.

The second specific area in which I would like to seek your help is on the issue of governance.

I imagine that in some ways, the governance mechanisms for the compact will be similar to the approach taken for many human rights instruments, where implementation of provisions is monitored and reported upon by a commission or council established specifically for this role.

Again, as people with experience in this field, I’d very much value your views on how we can make this approach work for the compact. Or to suggest other approaches to governance that you feel would be more effective.

The next steps from here, following the consultation period, is to finalise the compact and develop a short-term 2 year action plan and a longer term one of 5-10 years.

I’m working towards a deadline of December this year so it’s going to be an action packed couple of months.

There are many ways you can be involved. Through the online forum at www.socialinclusion.gov.au/forums, by lodging a written submission or running a discussion group among your member organisations using the toolkit that will be available soon.

Creating a compact that is both robust enough to survive changes in the political landscape, and is also flexible enough to respond to the challenges ahead will be our legacy for those who come after us.

A robust compact will frame the environment in which we work and shape the way that we work together – minimising the risk of working against each other in pursuit of the same goal.

Because, ultimately, despite our differences, we do indeed share the same driving mission – that of securing the wellbeing of all Australians.

So I would like to end by emphasising the point that the compact is not just about ensuring the long-term viability of the sector, although this is undeniably important. But most importantly of all, it is also about ensuring that we find the best way of working together for the well-being of all Australians.

I hope you will join me in this important endeavour and I look forward to working with you in the next steps of the compact journey.