2011 Finalists


Human rights medal (sponsored by rio tinto)

Ron Merkel QC

For 40 years, Ron Merkel has devoted himself to access to justice for people who are marginalised and disadvantaged, having a long and outstanding commitment to the promotion and advancement of human rights as a legal practitioner.

He is widely recognised as one of Australia's leading public and administrative law practitioners, specialising in the areas of human rights, civil liberties, the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, migration law,equal opportunity and anti-discrimination law.

Ron has practiced as a barrister since 1971 and as a Queens Counsel since 1982. He was appointed and sat as a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia from 1996 until retiring from the Court in 2006. Since leaving the Bench, Ron has returned to practice as a barrister with a particular focus on public interest and indigenous matters.

Ron runs a very significant pro bono practice and, through this practice, makes an exceptional contribution to the protection and realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Australia.

Ron has recently appeared in a range of significant and high profile cases including, this year, Eatock v Bolt where he appeared as lead counsel for nine Aboriginal people who successfully claimed that Andrew Bolt and the Herald and Weekly Times had published articles in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act.

He was also involved in a Request for Urgent Action to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on behalf of a group of 20 Aboriginal people affected by the Northern Territory Emergency Response in relation to the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act and the failure to consult adequately with affected Aboriginal communities.

In 2007, in Roach v Australian Electoral Commission and the Commonwealth, Ron appeared as lead counsel in a landmark High Court case which established constitutional protection of the right to vote and returned the vote to an estimated 8,000 prisoners. The case raised major issues as to the right to vote, representative democracy, prisoners' rights and Indigenous rights.

And in Wotton v Commonwealth, the judgment for which is currently reserved, Ron was lead counsel in relation to parole conditions imposed on Lex Wotton, an Aboriginal man involved in the Palm Island riots, and their compatibility with implied rights contained in the Australian Constitution.

In addition to his extensive human rights advocacy, Ron has occupied a number of important positions, including: Founding Member of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service; Founding Trustee of the Koori Aboriginal Heritage Trust; President of the Victorian and Australian Councils of Civil Liberties; Foundation Member and Life Member of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, and part-time Commissioner of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. He is also a patron of the Koori Heritage Trust, the Anna Wearne Trust and the East West Foundation of Australia.

The young people’s human rights medal (sponsored by department of immigration and citizenship)

Tshibanda Gracia Ngoy

Tshibanda Gracia Ngoy is a 19 year old Congolese-born Australian who arrived under the Humanitarian Visas Program in July 2005.

Gracia strives to better the lives of people around her and, in particular, youth from refugee backgrounds. She is a caseworker for refugee families, a radio co-host, a tutor for international students, a youth motivational speaker, and a member of the Illawarra Regional Advisory Council (IRAC), NSW Multicultural Youth Network (MYN), the Strategic Community Assistance to Refugee Families (SCARF). She is also a Co-Administrative Director for the Uganda-based Voice of Hope International Ministries, advocating for those who have been silenced by poverty and injustice.

Gracia's community work started at the age of 14, soon after her arrival in Australia in July 2005. In 2008, she developed a self-esteem/confidence and body image workshop which was funded by the Young People Advisory Council (YAPA). Her second workshop focused on 'Belonging and Identity', which aimed to affirm the identity of young people from refugee backgrounds and to give them tips on how to become part of the wider Australian society.

Nine years after leaving the Congo, her country of birth, due to tribal and political conflict Gracia returned to help the less fortunate. Here, she advised the government on how to improve the environment through encouraging the community to stop littering. She has also written articles aiming to break down the cultural barriers between the Congo and Australia by educating people about both cultures.

Gracia mentored and tutored primary school students from refugee backgrounds while volunteering with SCARF, providing them with a mentor they could look up to.

She's an active member of her community and has received various awards including the 2008 and 2009 Australian Defence Force Long Tan leadership and Teamwork Award, 2010 NSW CRC Young Volunteer of the Year, and 2011 Wollongong Young Citizen of the Year. She received the 2010 Encouragement Award in the Citizenship category of the West Illawarra Youth Achievement Award, the 2009 Young Women in Public Affairs Award and 2008 Pride of Australia Medal Award.

Print and online media award (sponsored by vibe australia)

Adele Horin, Fairfax Newspapers 'The sad truth behind closed doors'

Adele Horin researched and produced a series of articles which brought to light human rights violations of people with a disability living in licensed boarding houses in NSW.

Horin uncovered abuse and neglect in boarding houses and her efforts, along with those of disability advocacy groups, contributed to the public release of a NSW Ombudsman's special report on boarding houses in August this year.

The report, 'More than board and lodging: the need for boarding house reform,' reports on the vulnerability and poor circumstances of people with a disability living in licensed boarding houses.

Horin's coverage of the report and the horrific and frightening picture it painted of a sector where the most basic human needs are not provided, such as adequate food and basic health care, put the issue well and truly on the radar.

By giving voice to a variety of individuals and groups, including residents and advocacy organisations, Horin's fair and balanced pieces were instrumental in raising awareness of the abuse taking place at Grand Western Lodge, a licensed boarding house in Milthorpe, NSW.

Horin's report and the publicity which followed triggered a new commitment by the NSW Government to address the ongoing human rights issues in boarding houses.

Law award (sponsored by the law council of australia)

Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, Allens Arthur Robinson, Debbie Mortimer SC and Richard Niall SC

This legal team has acted pro bono in two landmark High Court cases which have upheld human rights and the rule of law.

Individually, each member of the team has also advised and acted pro bono in a significant number of other cases to promote and protect human rights.

In Plaintiff M61 v The Commonwealth & Ors (11 November 2010), the team acted on behalf of two Sri Lankan asylum seekers who arrived by boat at Christmas Island and sought to claim refugee status. In a unanimous decision, the High Court held that, despite the status of Christmas Island as an 'excised offshore place', the men were entitled to the full protection of Australian law and to procedural fairness.

In Plaintiff M70 v Minister for Immigration and Citizenship (31 August 2011), the team acted for two asylum seekers, including one 16 year old child, scheduled to be deported from Christmas Island to Malaysia for the processing of their refugee claims.

In a 6-1 decision, the High Court held that under the Migration Act, the government could not send asylum seekers for processing to a third country unless that country satisfied certain criteria.

In both these landmark cases, the legal team acted pro bono and ensured not only that each of these plaintiffs would have their claims for refugee status determined in Australia under Australian law, but that the fundamental tenets ofaccess to justice, procedural fairness, executive accountability and the rule of law were protected and preserved.

Television award (sponsored by the avant card)

Skype Scandal: Matt Moran and Hugh Riminton, Ten Network

In March 2011, an 18 year old female Air Force cadet had sex with a fellow cadet at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA).

A few days later, she learnt it had been broadcast live via Skype to other cadets.

Taking the story to Network 10, ’Kate’ spoke to reporter Matt Moran. Moran also interviewed ADFA commandant Bruce Kafer before breaking the story on Ten News at Five, on April 5 this year.  A police investigation was launched within days and two male cadets subsequently charged.

The Channel Ten journalists followed up with a series of investigative news stories that looked at the allegations, and raised broader questions about the treatment of women in the ADF.

Such was the shock and outrage at Kate’s allegations, the Government announced six separate inquiries, including one by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick into the broad treatment of women in the military.

Community individual award – tony fitzgerald memorial award (sponsored by ihr australia)

The late Lola Jane Edwards

Lola Edwards was born in 1946 in the northern NSW town of Tingha - a proud member of the Anaiwan and Gamilaroi Aboriginal Nations. She passed away on the 1st August this year.

At the age of four, Lola and her siblings were taken from their family, extended family, community and country Lola was sent to the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls Training Home in southern New South Wales.

She did not see her mother again until she was in her 30s. Lola never met her father.

Throughout her life, Lola consistently and tirelessly worked for social justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Lola was a member of Link-Up (NSW). In 1995/6, together with the late Carol Kendall, Lola was appointed to the specialist team which travelled extensively throughout NSW conducting 30 preparatory forums to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including members of the Stolen Generations, to give evidence to the Australian Human Right’s Commission’s Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal People from Their Families.

Two of many important recommendations that were included in the landmark Bringing Them Home report, were the direct result of Lola’s persistence - a 'National Apology' by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and an 'Annual Sorry Day'.

Radio award

Stefan Armbruster Malu Sara Tragedy, SBS Radio

Stefan Armbruster was the first to report on the continuing injustice befalling the families of victims of the Malu Sara tragedy.

By developing close contact with the families and victims of this tragedy, Armbruster was able to give voice to their immense distress and frustration with the legal system which continues to haunt them many  years after the immigration patrol boat sank in the Torres Strait on 15 October 2005.

Despite paying out compensation over the last 12 months, the Queensland Government has decided against pursuing criminal prosecutions for the tragedy that killed five islanders.

Although the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and the boat builder have received unprecedented fines under federal workplace health and safety laws, the Queensland Government has not changed its position.

Queensland’s Crime and Misconduct Commission is now contesting what it considers to be the inadequate internal police disciplinary action against the police sergeant responsible for the botched search and rescue operation.

Armbruster’s compelling reporting demonstrates that for many islanders, the case has confirmed their feelings of neglect and of being treated unjustly by the federal and Queensland governments.

Business award

The Captioning Studio

The Captioning Studio brings together technology and a passion for inclusion of people with hearing loss.

The business provides daily television captioning which gives viewers with a hearing loss full access to television programs, and also captions and subtitled DVDs and videos. The Captioning Studio also provides theatrical captioning in venues across Australia.

Their unique Go-Theatrical! software is used in theatres and venues across Australia.  They have also recently launched ‘Captioning Equipment Kits’ which provide free and shared use of equipment such as plasma screens, cabling, laptops and software to venues in capital cities around Australia.

They’ve also developed new technology, Clickable Captions, which encourages website owners to make online content accessible by displaying a full transcript next to online videos.

Literature (non-fiction) award (sponsored by the coop bookshop)

Half a Citizen: Life on welfare in Australia

Half a Citizen draws on in-depth interviews with 150 welfare recipients to reveal people struggling to get by on a low income, the anxieties of balancing paid work with income support, and how unstable housing makes it difficult to get ahead.
By investigating the lives beyond statistics, Half a Citizen also explodes powerful myths and assumptions on which welfare policy is based. These stories of resilience and passion bear no resemblance to the clichéd images of dependence, laziness and social isolation which sometimes underpin social policy and media debate.

Authors: John Murphy, Suellen Murray, Jenny Chalmers, Sonia Martin & Greg Martson

Community organisation award (sponsored by the david uniapon college of indigenous education and research)

Swags for Homeless

Swags for Homeless was founded by Tony Clark when he questioned why homeless people sleeping on the street are not given suitable outdoor bedding when turned away from shelters. 
Swags for Homeless partners with over 100 charities across Australia to distribute 'Backpack Beds' directly to homeless people in need.

The backpack bed is designed to help give the homeless dignity, self-esteem, health, sleep, comfort and safety. Three thousand Backpack Beds were distributed in the last 12 months, with distribution numbers limited only by public and corporate funding.