“When you feel a call to participate, you should.”
Senator Deborah O’Neill was speaking to the members of the Human Rights Group (HRG) at St Clare’s High School, Taree, in response to an invitation from leader and Year 12 student Kenneth Tsang. The Group, which includes some eighty students, had made a laboriously-researched submission in response to the proposed repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975.
Members of the Group, mentored by teachers Phillip Chalmers and Catherine Eady, have chosen a focus area for each term of the school year, so the “call to participate” has been well and truly heard and taken seriously. Term one’s focus was racism, hence the consideration given to Section 18C, and other issues on the HRG’s 2014 agenda are asylum seekers and refugees, homophobic bullying and disability rights.
Senator O’Neill congratulated the students for investing time and energy in taking a public stance. She was impressed not only by their diligence in undertaking the task of making a submission, but also by the fact that Kenneth Tsang had independently made a submission to the Select Committee inquiring into and reporting on the Government's reviews of the National Broadband Network. “I was able to show Kenneth’s document to the new Senators as a quick guide to the NBN,” she said. The NSW Senator lives in a digitally divided electorate and Kenneth’s insistence that all Australians, especially young Australians, need a common digital platform which can underwrite their success, resonated with her.
But back to 18C! The St Clare’s HRG submission was uncompromising in its stance, stating,
- The amendment of the Act is a licence to racially offend, insult and humiliate others.
- The amendment still allows publication of racially intimidating or vilifying content, however, no longer requires the publication to be “fair and accurate” as is the case with the current exemptions (18D).
- The amendment also excludes mental or psychological harm enacted as a result of intimidation, which is increasingly prevalent in the abuse of social networking.
Senator O’Neill spoke candidly with her audience and answered as many questions as time allowed. She described her strong reaction to Attorney General George Brandis’ insistence that Australians have the right to be bigots earlier this year; “I thought, ‘This is a mistake. Do not proceed,’ as I sat next to Nova Peris, the first Indigenous woman to be elected to the Federal Parliament.”
This almost visceral reaction to injustice led Senator O’Neill to encourage students to be active citizens and to discern carefully before committing to causes. “What speaks to your heart? It’s so important we get good people in Parliament....To be a teacher is powerful. To be a teacher and to lead is very powerful.”
Senator O’Neill acknowledged the value of the faith dimension of a Catholic school, saying, “The good news that is the faith is an extra shot in the arm in terms of the ability to transcend events.”
Speaking after the visit, principal Peter Nicholls said, “It’s very important for the health of our country that young people know about and participate in the democratic process, ensuring accountability for decision makers and the inclusion of new energy and ideas.
“The fact that our Human Rights Group was able to spend time with Senator O’Neill was a wonderful opportunity for our students to become better versed in the political process and to meet the person who is going to table their submission in parliament.”
Kenneth Tsang was greatly encouraged by the events of the day. “Senator O'Neill's visit really affirmed the importance of what we do as a group. We're absolutely delighted that our hard work and advocacy in this area of racism are being recognised by federal members of parliament. It has definitely encouraged us in our future initiatives and given us the confidence that even in a regional town like Taree, we do have a voice to express our values and beliefs.
“One of the key points from the Senator's discussion with us is that ‘age is no barrier’. We're all very encouraged by the potential to be heard.”
Immediately after the Senator’s visit, teachers Phillip Chalmers and Catherine Eady met with the HRG to plan their next move. There’s no doubt St Clare’s Human Rights Group will continue to be heard.
To learn more, please visit www.humanrightsgroup.org.au/joinourfight.html.