Perspectives on human rights and freedoms

Melbourne Grammar School students were treated to an outstanding demonstration of intelligence, expertise, and humanity at the ‘Conversation with the Archbishop’ event held at the School earlier this year.

Convened by Archbishop Philip Freier, Archbishop of Melbourne and Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, the panel discussion focused on the topic: ‘Whose 
rights, and how?’ Mr Ed Santow, Federal Human Rights Commissioner, and Emeritus Professor Cheryl Saunders,  The University of Melbourne Law School, joined the Archbishop on the panel. The conversation was moderated by former ABC journalist, John Cleary.

The broad ranging discussion included deliberation of the nature of rights, how they can sometimes be conflicted and the challenges inherent in managing these conflicts. The panel initially spoke about what we mean by a ‘right’. “If we combine all consideration given to human rights law, then I believe we reach one simple but subtle idea – human rights exist to protect peoples’ basic dignity,” explained Mr Santow.

One of Australia’s constitutional experts, Professor Saunders, guided the audience through Australia’s framework. “Very often, rather than being treated within a framework of moral philosophy, rights are treated within a legal framework and, within that, at various levels,” she said. “For example, there are international laws, then most countries have legal protections for rights in their constitution. Then there are statutes and common law. However, the Australian Constitution does not have a clear outline of rights and this can present problems for us.”

Other narratives addressed included recent changes to the Marriage Act, the impact of a shift in security measures on rights, and how technology has led to new challenges. 

“I saw this as an opportunity to model conversation that is respectful in the public square around complex and contested community issues,” explains Archbishop Freier. “By holding the conversation in a school, I am able to both engage with students and provide them with a Christian understanding of significant public matters, as well as affirm the Anglican Church’s commitment to Anglican schools.”

With ‘conversations’ regularly convened by the Archbishop for adult audiences, this was the first school-based event. “It was important that the level of debate was maintained at a level which challenged students,” says the Archbishop. “I was delighted with the level of interest and thoughtfulness of the students, which was apparent through the Q&A component of the event.”

Year 7 student, Konrad Dowse, enjoyed the presentation and offered the first audience question to the panel. “I asked how you can make an effective law against hate speech if offense is subjective,” he said. “The response was really interesting. The panel suggested that the legal situation is complex but, in the end, we should judge the situation on whether the harm being done outweighs the right to free speech. They also said that perhaps we should not always turn to the law for an answer. For example, maybe people who ‘own’ various online sites could take responsibility for providing a bit more censorship.”

In summing up, the Archbishop stated: “Anything that moves us towards a social construction of rights, rather than thinking they are innate, gives us a reason for more thorough consideration. We must remain attentive to matters that give greater value to some people over others.”

It was a wonderful event.

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