NOTE: This is comment, not straight reporting. I am trying to faithfully report the ideas and attitudes of each speaker, but I have chosen many terms because they made better reading. Especially please do not assume that any speaker has seen, or approves of, this report, or what I have said about them or their ideas.
The Brisbane Social Forum 2006 was better than last year's, which was also good.
While there are some on-going faults that should be looked at, I heard a lot of people who stood out because they were NOT just there to parrot the same old conservative-left* line. I went to four sessions on Saturday, May 20th. I've already written about the Humphrey McQueen (G) session, so I won't repeat the same points, but I will mention in a yet later post some of the things that didn't make it into the first article.
The Saturday morning session I attended was about human rights. I was skeptical, because I am not going to give my energy to help to pass a law that I think will have little or no effect. But the people who spoke, even the one who had spent a lot of time with the UN human rights process, all seemed to not be fooled by the idea that just passing a new law will solve any real problems.
The first speaker was Kim Pate, from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, who spoke mainly about the 20th anniversary of equality provisions in the Canadian Human Rights Charter. Many, she said, were not being protected by this law, even though the law says they are protected. She was skeptical of courts - she thought that 'half the time' they are not the place to argue (for a start, lawyers are expensive, and they don't like informed clients) - but still, they are often the only place to get even half a chance at justice for the female prisoners she works for.
And she spoke very tellingly of the reaction from those prisoners when she suggested that court challenges and so on were not the right way to go - THEY insisted that she carry on with her legal work. Obviously the women she works for thinks it's useful.
Pate also spoke about pushing academics to do the sort of research that the powerless need, and about forming links with other organisations for nation-wide campaigns.
Next to speak was Deb Kilroy of Sisters Inside.
She talked about a government report on systematic discrimination against women prisoners in Queensland that her organisation had to push hard for - in fact the Qld Anti-Discrimination Commission's first reaction was to deny that there was any systematic discrimination. The report finally got done (PDF link), but the government has disowned it. Sisters Inside is trying to get female prisoners to lodge formal complaints about their treatment - but the fear of retailiation is a big rock in their way.
Kilroy was keen to see a Human Rights Act passed here in Australia, not because it will end any battles at all, but because it will give people like her one more tool to use when pushing for the rights of female prisoners. She was quite prepared to wait for the right sort of law though. Apparently there is a feeling among many who want a Bill of Rights, that 'if we just pass any law we can even if it is not very good, we can amend it later'. Kilroy disagrees - if the government will not do the right thing now, why would they do it in the future?
The third speaker, Lillian Holt, a vice chancellor's fellow at the University of Melbourne, said much that I don't agree with, and also said many things that made me think that she is very good at shocking people out of old, boring ways of thinking. She is Aboriginal, and my favourite thing that she said was that over 30 years, the 'empty rhetoric' of 'motherhood statements' about self-determination had turned into 'motherfucker' statements.
Holt went on to make the point that the rhetoric of tolerance is not about changing society, it is about getting the victims of discrimination to accept the society that has victimised them. She is also against political correctness - she wants to know if she is dealing with a racist, instead of having to guess. (And she said she may even get on well with the racist, once they get over that hurdle).
Next up was Caroline Lambert of the Women's Rights Action Network of Australia (WRANA).
She spoke about how she had lobbied the UN's human rights officials, and while she is brutally aware of the limitations of the system, still thinks that at least some work needs to be done there. For instance, the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (now there's a catchy name) provides the only legal basis for Australian human rights law entering the 'private' areas of the market and the home.
The CEDAW committee at the UN is looking closely and radically at women's productive and reproductive labour at the moment. Lambert's work in New York was about pushing this further, and especially encouraging the UN to not look just at the written law, but the practical, day-to-day effects of policy. To take an extreme example, a woman's right to vote is meaningless if no girls ever go to school.
A woman who works at a shelter for female victims of violence raised the same point that had been in my head - can words, laws and documents really protect people? Kilroy replied that it was just one more way to get abuse noticed, and solve a few real problems for people.
Pate said that sometimes you have to prove you have exhausted the legal solutions before moving onto direct action - and made the crucial point that people on the ground need to know that someone is fighting for them. She went on to describe the work her group is doing to teach female prisoners to be advocates for other prisoners.
Lambert explained that while she sees the work with the UN as important, the most important thing is building a culture that produces 'rights-claiming individuals', instead of human rights being something that activists 'do' to victims of abuse.
After this discussion, the final programmed speaker, Serina McDuff spoke briefly, but time was running out. I only have brief notes on two comments that she made: She'd like to see an expansive Bill of Rights/Human Rights Act in place now, and that the Government is very good at using Human Rights law to SAY it is doing good things, without actually doing them. That was a pity, because her resume sounds interesting:
Well, time for lunch. The Student Union's pizza cafe was open, so I had a double-garlic, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese (mozzarella) and cheese (fetta) pizza, washed down with a small bottle of Beez Neez honey beer. Damn, we activists do it tough.
I'm already working on a post about the media workshop after lunch. Keep your feeds open...
I think these people are conservative because their angry speeches are usually about being 'anti' this or 'anti' that, and they personalise their opposition to the system (They blame 'Howard', 'Bush', or whoever, instead of talking about what the ruling class is doing. They also often talk as the ruling class as a conspiracy (which it is not)). There also appears to be an undying hatred of the USA, which means they fail to understand its motives, and a rejection of modern society.
This sort of thing encourages people to believe that the system cannot be changed at all.
Radical-left thought, the opposite of conservative-left thought, encourages people to study the world as it really is, coolly and clearly, and asks people to think about how they would solve the problems of taking over and then running society. The revolution will be the easy bit - after that we actually have to run things!
Radical-left thought talks about the ruling class as it is, not as some conspiracy that plans attacks on its own cities (Rebuttal of people who think like this about September 11, 2001).
Radical-left thought is proud of this modern world that workers have built with their own hands and skill and power. We are not going to destroy it, we are going to take it over and make it better. And it is now better than it has ever been before.
tags: politics human.rights clearthink kim.pate elizabeth.fry deb.kilroy sisters.inside lillian.holt serina.mcduff catherine.lambert cedaw ywca wrana