The Youth Affairs Network Queensland believes it is necessary to reframe debates about young people's services (such as education, housing, employment support etc) by asserting young people's rights, as opposed to their ‘needs’. It is important to differentiate between these two terms. This is because of the negative impact which the current term ‘needs’ is having on young people in our society by reinforcing negative connotations. Instead, Australia must adopt a “rights culture"1.
There are a number of underlying meanings associated with the word ‘need’. Firstly, having ‘needs’ suggests that persons are weak because they require ‘help’2. This is a degrading portrayal of human necessities. It conjures up ideas of the weak and inferior in the same manner we would refer to the elderly, disabled and children. Secondly, the term ‘need’ has become a dirty word because people think a need requires charity and charity requires tax payer’s money. People with needs are portrayed as slackers who can’t support themselves.
There are a number of weaknesses inherent in the very meaning of ‘need’ that aren’t immediately obvious. Firstly, because needs can be prioritised and addressed on a conditional basis there is no recourse when needs aren’t met. While the infringement of a need offers no remedy legal remedy in most cases, the infringement of a right does. Secondly, when something is labelled a need, it can be withheld upon minimal justification.
Secondly, the adoption of ‘rights’ would distinctly alter Australia’s current lagging political landscape away from utilitarianism3. The utilitarian perspective holds that the happiness of the majority takes precedence over the individual. This means that minority groups are often overlooked while the majority; who are white, able-bodied, working consumers become the most important. The difference with a ‘rights’ focus is that the individual becomes paramount in all decisions. This perspective is inclusive of all Australians, specifically children.
For every society, protecting children from harm should be paramount. This is because children are not able to protect themselves4. In most cases society has deemed children too immature to make their own decisions and subsequently limits the level of input they have regarding their own lives. This means that many decisions are made for children without their input and this has subsequently lead to discriminatory outcomes for children. A few examples include; lower pay rates for young workers until the age of twenty-one5, the recent reform of electoral enrolment procedures6, mandatory sentencing7 and police ‘move-on’ powers8.
Under the current system there is little that exists to protect young people against such discriminatory outcomes9. The most notable absences exist within the Australian constitution10 which “…contains no human rights protections whatsoever”11. This deficit still exists despite Australia having signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights.
There are many who believe that in order to protect children Australia must implement a bill of rights12,13. An amendment to the Australian constitution is the only way to guarantee that these rights are protected. A second option would be a federal or state level bill of rights. In Victoria and the A.C.T. similar legislation already exists14. However, the problem with both of these examples is that firstly; they can be readily repealed, and secondly; they don’t provide courts with the power to strike down bills. Courts must be granted the power to reject legislation where it contravenes human rights.
While the situation remains that children can’t vote and aren’t represented through government there should be measures implemented to protect them. The recognition of human rights by our government as well as the rejection of derogatory terms like ‘needs’ would go a long way. These are simple changes which express as a nation our recognition of the importance and vulnerability of young people in Australian society today and for the future.
Daniel Allert is a final year Behavioural Studies student at the University of Queensland. He is currently on professional placement with YANQ. At the conclusion of the degree he hopes to enter the workforce somewhere in Australia on his path to world domination. According to a number of sources, the community sector is a good place to start.
- Freckelton, Ian. (2006). Human rights and health. 14 JLM 7: 14.
- Lake, Marilyn (2004). Translating needs into rights: race, manhood and the family wage. Tasman Historical Studies; 9: 34-42.
- Charlesworth, Hilary. (2004). Who wins under a bill of rights? The University of Queensland Law Journal 25 (1): 52.
- Ludbrook, Robert. (1996). Children and the political process. Australian Journal of Human Rights, 9.
- Bessant, Judith. (2000) The youth wage and age-based discrimination: rights vs jobs. Australian Journal of Social Issues, 35 (3), 235-250.
- Head, Michael. (2006). Democratic rights on the chopping block: Australia’s new electoral laws and the Hight Court [online]. Overland, 185.
- White, Rob. (2000). 10 arguments against mandatory sentencing [online]. Youth Studies Australia, 19 (2), 22-24.
- Eggington, Dennis; Allingham, Kate. (2006). Move on justice: a new mechanism for police control. Indigenous Law Bulletin, 6 (23), 18-20.
- Howard, Sure. (2006). How well does Australia stack up internationally on child protection? Australian Children’s Rights News, 42.
- Stone, Adrienne. (2005). Australia’s constitutional rights and the problem of interpretive disagreement. Sydney Law Review 2.
- Nicholson, A. (2006). Editorial note: the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and the need for its incorporation into a bill of rights. 44 Family Court Review 5.
- Charlesworth, Hilary. (2004). Who wins under a bill of rights? The University of Queensland Law Journal 25 (1).
- Murray, Andrew. (2006). An evaluation of the protection of rights by parliament. The Parliamentarian, 3: 231.
- Bagaric, M., Faris, P. (2007). Editorial: The impact of the Victorian human rights charter on criminal proceedings. 31 Criminal Law Journal 5: 10.