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Wednesday, 26 November 1986
Page: 2761


Senator DURACK(11.55) —I think this is an appropriate time to have what one might call a mini second reading debate in relation to this matter, albeit we are in Committee. Senator Gareth Evans, I suppose, will be pleased to know that there are certain time limits which will confine us, even though our remarks may be repeated over and over again. I do wish to make some general remarks in relation to what the Government is about and what the Opposition's position is in relation to that. I will speak later to the Government's amendments after they have been moved.

I now want to make some general remarks about the Government's attitude to the position in which the Parliament finds itself in relation to the Human Rights Commission. It is well known that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Bill has inserted in it a sunset clause under which the present Commission, as it exists, expires, I think, at midnight on 9 December this year. That date has been set for nearly five years and I would have thought that the Government, with all its rhetoric about human rights, international covenants and whatever, would have moved at an earlier stage to have done something about that. The Government did in fact bring in the Bill of Rights package and I admit that that addressed this question. But since March this year, which is eight months ago, the Government has taken no moves to deal with this question of what is to be done when the term of the Commission expires.

In the dying hours of this parliamentary session, and indeed in the dying hours of the Commission, the Government has reactivated the question and decided that it does not like the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission Bill, which has been sitting around this place for 12 months, and it wants to make major amendments both to it and to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill, which is a companion to it. The Government wants to proceed with that. The Opposition will not be opposing the reconsideration of the Bill. Indeed some further research that has been made on the Bill has motivated the Opposition to move some further amendment to it; so we, as well as the Government, wish to take that opportunity. All I can say is that I would have thought, on the Government's own rhetoric, that this would have been a matter to which it would have given a much higher priority and we would not have been under pressure, as we undoubtedly are at the moment, to hasten debate on this most important question.

Senator Evans keeps emphasising that this is the fourth longest debate in this Parliament since 1950. I will not be tempted to debate that matter any further, although Senator Evans sorely tempted me. The Opposition opposed and voted against the second reading of the Human Rights Commission and Equal Opportunity Commission Bill and we will be maintaining our opposition in principle to that Bill. Although we will be moving amendments to the Bill in Committee-we did before, incidentally, and we succeeded with one major amendment which we moved-we will be voting against its third reading.

In those circumstances I want to make it clear where the Opposition stands in relation to the matter of human rights in Australia and how they should be protected and enhanced. In case it may be thought by some malicious people-and heaven forbid that there are any in this chamber, but I rather suspect there may be at least some malicious comment made in this debate-that the Opposition's stance in opposing this legislation is going to leave a vacuum when the term of the Commission expires, I want to address a few remarks on what the Opposition will do about that in the short time at my disposal. We believe that Australia does not have any need to apologise to any international body for its record in the preservation and enhancement of human rights. Our record is one of the best in the world, indeed in the Free World, and it has consistently been one of the best.

We do, however, reiterate our opposition to the Human Rights Commission. We believe that it was an experiment that failed and therefore we would let it die and would not set up a new body as the Government is proposing to do. Our view on that follows from the record of the Human Rights Commission. We are not necessarily criticising the Commission itself, but it is its approach and the powers that are given to it which have, in experience, proved to be, I think, unsuitable and unwise. We refer to those powers and the way they have been exercised and to the public record of the way that the Commission has propagated its own views on the content of rights. Undoubtedly some biases become exposed and in many cases with bodies such as that biases of the staff. We have concluded that it is unwise to repose such powers on a body which is really a bureaucratic structure. It is not answerable as Ministers are to the Parliament or to the public. It is certainly not like a court, yet it has its own agenda for human rights which it does propagate.

The Opposition gives general support to the principles enunciated in the various international covenants, conventions and declarations that are in the package. As the Government reiterates at every opportunity, it was the Fraser Government that ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We are indeed proud of the fact that we did do it. We did it in a responsible way and with responsible reservations, which the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans), of course, soon after he became Attorney-General, was at pains to change, and he made a long song and dance about that. But the fact is that there were grounds for having reservations and we ratified it only after full consultation and co-operation with State governments.

However, we do have some reservations about that covenant. We believe that it is a good general statement of principles which, by and large, Australia has always observed and will continue to observe. If we keep a healthy, vigorous and democratic community in a traditional form, we will continue to preserve them. But we do say so with these qualifications: The principles in that covenant do not in all respects reflect Australian values. They should not supplant or be used to supplant or override the values that we sought to emphasise in the Bill of Rights debate, namely, the protection of private property, the right of choice in education and a choice to be or not to be a member of a union, among others. The principles in the conventions do suffer from serious defects. In particular, they are frequently expressed in vague, general and ambiguous terms and are internally inconsistent. Many of them deal with matters that are expressly dealt with by Federal or State laws; for example, the freedom of expression, the right to enter and leave Australia, the powers of arrest and the conduct of criminal trials.

The Opposition's general approach to abuses of human rights, to defects in the laws, deficiencies and remedies, is to propose specific laws to deal with specific matters and not to adopt general, broadly expressed, ambiguously expressed codes derived from these international models which suffer from the inevitable defects of compromise, ambiguity, and preoccupations and priorities of other countries less fortunate than Australia. We support the principles that underlie the sex and race discrimination legislation. By our stand we do not in any way suggest that we are opposed to those pieces of legislation or that we would repeal them. We are unequivocally opposed to any form of discrimination based on sex or race. We do not necessarily support all the detail of that legislation or its mechanisms of enforcement. We acknowledge that in the area of sex discrimination the most careful consideration should be given to genuinely held, conscientious beliefs and to specific areas of exemption, which to some extent are dealt with in the Sex Discrimination Act but which we think probably need further amendment.

However, we are entirely opposed to reposing in any type of bureaucratic body or authority the task of educating the public on human rights matters. That has been one of the deficiencies, which experience has revealed, in the way in which the Human Rights Commission has operated. It has simply given scope to the propagation of various biases of the individuals appointed to those bodies or of members of their staffs. On the other hand, the issue of human rights is certainly one for public debate. Of course, in that debate a Liberal-National Party government would accord the Attorney-General of the day a leading role and a major responsibility.

On the demise of the Human Rights Commission, we agree that, if we were in government, we would make changes to the mechanisms for the enforcement of the sex and race discrimination legislation. There is already a Sex Discrimination Commissioner; a Race Discrimination Commissioner will come into existence when we pass this legislation. But, undoubtedly, further mechanisms will be required in lieu of those in the Human Rights Commission. Of course, the legislation refers to the Human Rights Commission; so necessarily amendments will be required to provide for a further mechanism of enforcement. The Racial Discrimination Act and, indirectly, the Sex Discrimination Act provide for enforcement in the courts. Of course, that would be an option that would be very seriously considered by the Opposition. Some form of parliamentary committee or other advisory committee could also be considered. At this stage we do no more than acknowledge that some mechanisms of enforcement will be required to replace some aspects of the role of the Human Rights Commission and that, if we were in government, we would address that. Had we been in government, we would have addressed it long before the time of expiry that is facing the Government and the Parliament at present.