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- Start of Business
- NAVIGATION AMENDMENT (EMPLOYMENT OF SEAFARERS) BILL 1998
- STATES GRANTS (PRIMARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION ASSISTANCE) AMENDMENT BILL 1998
- SOCIAL SECURITY AND VETERANS' AFFAIRS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (PAYMENT PROCESSING) BILL 1998
- STATES GRANTS (GENERAL PURPOSES) AMENDMENT BILL 1998
- FISHERIES LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL (No. 1) 1998
- HUMAN RIGHTS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL (No. 2) 1998
- FLOOD DAMAGE
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
(Beazley, Kim, MP, Howard, John, MP)
Flood Damage: Financial Assistance
(Broadbent, Russell, MP, Fahey, John, MP)
(Beazley, Kim, MP, Howard, John, MP)
Tough on Drugs Strategy
(Wakelin, Barry, MP, Howard, John, MP)
(Brereton, Laurie, MP, Howard, John, MP)
Export Market Development Grants Scheme
(Neville, Paul, MP, Fischer, Tim, MP)
(Holding, Clyde, MP, Howard, John, MP)
(Jeanes, Susan, MP, Costello, Peter, MP)
(Lee, Michael, MP, Howard, John, MP)
Educational Opportunities for Young People in Regional Australia
(Lieberman, Lou, MP, Kemp, Dr David, MP)
Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition
(Latham, Mark, MP, Kemp, Dr David, MP)
(Lloyd, Jim, MP, Costello, Peter, MP)
- One Nation
- DISTINGUISHED VISITORS
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
Goods and Services Tax
(Evans, Gareth, MP, Costello, Peter, MP)
(Evans, Richard, MP, Reith, Peter, MP)
Capital Gains Tax
(Rocher, Allan, MP, Costello, Peter, MP)
(Draper, Trish, MP, Kemp, Dr David, MP)
Goods and Services Tax
(Evans, Gareth, MP, Costello, Peter, MP)
(Nugent, Peter, MP, Downer, Alexander, MP)
- Goods and Services Tax
- QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE: ADDITIONAL RESPONSES
- HOLDING, MR CLYDE
- PERSONAL EXPLANATIONS
- AUDITOR-GENERAL'S REPORTS
- MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE
- NATIONAL CAPITAL AUTHORITY
- ASSENT TO BILLS
- MANAGED INVESTMENTS BILL 1997
- COMPANY LAW REVIEW BILL 1997
- HUMAN RIGHTS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL (No. 2) 1998
- Work for the Dole
- Duthie, Mr William Arthur, AM
- Shoalhaven: Dialysis Facilities
- Goods and Services Tax
- Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme
- One Nation Party
- Ministerial Reply
- Ministerial Reply
- Start of Business
- STATEMENTS BY MEMBERS
Thursday, 25 June 1998
Mr MELHAM (12:57 PM) —The Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1998 represents a further attack by the Howard government on the human rights of ordinary Australians. It forms just one part of a series of actions being undertaken by the Howard government that are depriving many hundreds of thousands of Australians of the right of access to justice and the right to hold their government accountable.
This government is attacking the rights held by Australians by making cuts to a wide variety of justice related services. These include cuts to legal aid, the federal courts and tribunals, and the family services program. The government has also increased fees for federal courts and tribunals and is considering limiting the rights of Australians to hold their government accountable through the Commonwealth's administrative law system.
In total, from its election to the turn of the century, the government will have cut more than $400 million from services that help Australians access justice. Foremost among the cuts to access justice measures are the government's cuts to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The government has reduced funding for the commission from the $21.6 million provided in the 1995-96 financial year, to the $20.5 million provided in the 1996-97 financial year, to the $18.2 million provided this year, to $12.3 million provided in 1998-99, and to an average of only $10.6 million over each of the outyears.
Once completed, the cuts implemented by this government will mean that in real terms the budget of the commission will have been cut by an average of a staggering $13 million per year, or 55 per cent. In total, over the six years budgeted by the Howard government, this government will spend a staggering $57 million less in real terms than if 1995-96 funding levels had been maintained.
Despite the fact that the cuts announced by the government were not meant to begin to take full effect until next financial year, the commission was forced, for budgetary reasons, to implement the cuts with effect from 1 January this year. This is because the government failed to provide the commission with ancillary funding to meet the inevitable costs that would flow from redundancy packages. And redundancies there have been. As a result of the cuts, the commission has been forced to sack approximately 60 of its 180 staff, and half a million dollars a year of its now very scarce budget is being wasted on vacant unused office space in its Sydney office in Castlereagh Street, Sydney.
The effect of these cuts has been devastating. The commission has effectively been forced to abandon the great bulk of its ongoing inquiry work and, instead, has been forced to meet its essential, statutory obligations to conciliate complaints. The actual effect of these cuts is completely at odds with the government's claims. The then Acting Attorney-General, the Hon. Philip Ruddock MP, stated in a media release dated 9 June 1997:
Reports in the media today contain incorrect claims that changes to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) will have a negative impact on disabled people.
However, the Human Rights Commissioner, Mr Sidoti, who is now the Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner as well, confirmed, in evidence to a Senate estimates committee, that the services provided by the Disability Discrimination Commissioner would be amongst those to be affected by the cuts. Indeed, half the staff formerly working in the disability discrimination area have now been sacked.
The government's deceit in not telling some of the most disadvantaged in our community of the real effect of these cuts is simply deplorable and should be condemned by all in our community. But deceit about the commission's budget began at the time of the last election. Generally, the government promised that Labor's access to justice measures, including the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, would have their budgets either matched or extended. A specific exception was noted for the commission in one particular regard. In its election promises, the government originally projected a cut of $1.5 million per year in the 1996-97 budget to transfer the hearing function from the commission to the Federal Court of Australia. This cut has been delayed pending the passage of the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1996. However, even this cut was unjustified. The Senate estimates committee has been told that the true cost to the commission for the provision of the hearing function is only $600,000 per year. Despite this evidence, the government has persisted with the implementation of this cut purely on the basis that the coalition got the figure wrong in its law and justice policy released by Senator Vanstone during the 1996 federal election.
I turn now to the Fightback agenda. In reality, the government has implemented its discredited Fightback agenda on human rights. As part of that package, in November 1991 the coalition promised to cut the budget of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. However, those cuts were abandoned in the wake of the 1993 election defeat because of strong community opposition. However, they have re-emerged in this government's deceitful agenda to attack institutions that play an important role in ensuring a fair and decent Australia.
The Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1996 sits alongside that bill—a deceitful bill which, whilst implementing reforms necessary as a result of the High Court's Brandy decision, also implements a variety of measures that will deprive most Australians of any real ability to personally enforce their human rights. The Attorney-General (Mr Williams) claimed, in a media release dated 3 March this year, that the Labor Party was delaying passage of the No. 1 bill. The truth is that this government has failed to list that bill on the Notice Paper in the Senate at any time when it had any real prospects of actually being debated. For example, the government listed the bill for debate after the Native Title Amendment Bill 1997in December last year. The No. 1 bill was not reached. The No. 1 bill was listed again briefly in March, but once again at the end of a long legislative program which was again unlikely to be reached. Since then, and despite ample opportunities for the government to list the bill for debate in the Senate, it has not appeared on the Senate Notice Paper. So, despite having had almost 12 months since it was introduced in the Senate, and a similar time since the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee reported on that bill, the Attorney has simply been unable to convince his colleagues of the importance that this legislation be dealt with by the parliament. It is the Attorney and the government that are delaying the passage of that legislation. The Labor Party—as it is entitled to do—is merely seeking to amend the objectionable parts of that legislation.
The government's attacks on human rights do not end there. The decision announced by the government to cut $120 million over three years from legal aid funding, and thereby to dismantle Australia's national unified legal aid system, is also having a profound effect on the ability of Australians to enforce their human rights. This is particularly the case as, in accordance with the provisions of the No. 1 bill, discrimination law disputes will now be determined in the Federal Court of Australia.
I draw the House's attention to the more detailed discussion of the effect of the cuts to legal aid funding as contained in the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee's first and second reports on Australia's legal aid system. Accordingly, I do not propose to discuss the details of the cuts in the context of the present bill. However, there are two points that I wish to make. First, the legal aid cuts over the six years budgeted by this government now represent a $231 million cut in legal aid funding in real terms. Each year the Howard government is spending $46.5 million less in real terms on legal aid funding than if 1995-96 funding levels and expenditure commitments had been maintained.
Secondly, I note that the Commonwealth-state legal aid agreements, which came into effect on 1 July 1997, contain the following guideline at 5.1 with respect to the funding of equal opportunity and discrimination cases:
The Commission may grant assistance for equal opportunity/discrimination cases where there are strong prospects of substantial benefit being gained not only by the applicant but also by the public or any section of the public.
Such a guideline is totally unacceptable because it unfairly excludes people suffering from discrimination from access to legal assistance. The guideline achieves this effect by providing a number of additional qualifiers to the standard merits and financial hardship tests that an applicant is required to demonstrate. In particular, applicants must show that: (a) they have strong prospects of success; (b) those prospects are directed towards the attainment of a substantial benefit; and (c) the benefit will be acquired not only by the individual bringing the complaint but also by the claim serving a broader public interest, or otherwise being in the interests of a section of the public. These additional requirements have been applied arbitrarily, as other civil litigants are not required to satisfy similar criteria in order to access legal aid. These additional requirements will effectively exclude large numbers of people adversely affected by discrimination from access to legal aid and therefore will deny most of them the ability to protect their fundamental human rights.
Finally, these additional requirements are simply unacceptable as a matter of principle. The Labor Party believes that the creation of equality of opportunity and the elimination of discrimination are matters which derive substantial benefits not only to individual complainants but also to both the class of persons to which that complainant belongs and to the community as a whole. Accordingly, the Labor Party believes that tests (b) and (c) mentioned above are either redundant or, to the extent that they impose some higher standard on applicants, are in breach of both the moral and international legal obligations owed the Australian government and thus should be opposed.
The problem with all this is that—and it is consistent; I will come to the legislation next—we really have a government that has an attitude problem. The members of this government are into bean counting. We have an Attorney-General who, unfortunately, carries no clout in this government; who time and time again is rolled by his cabinet. Frankly, the problem is at the top with this Prime Minister (Mr Howard)—a mean spirited, vindictive Prime Minister who is using Fightback as his agenda, because he had no agenda when he came to government. It was a government elected on deceit; it was a government whose members told us, before they were elected, that we would get more of the same, that we would all be comfortable and relaxed and that it would be a government for all of us.
Mr Abbott —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order under standing order 75. I know that intemperate language is not uncommon in this place. The point of order is that I think those words are offensive, and I do not think they should be used. I certainly think that it is the kind of thing which gives rise to the general contempt in which this place is, too sadly, held by too many people.
Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. G.H. Adams) —I ask the honourable member for Banks to keep to the matter before the House.
Mr MELHAM —The relevancy is that when you change governments you invariably change the nation, and it is the Prime Minister who, most of all, drives that change. This bill is consistent with the values of this Prime Minister. This government goes backwards, not forwards. The changes that this bill brings to the human rights legislation in this country are a backward step. What I was saying earlier is relevant, because what you need to do is look at the historical record and learn from the mistakes of the past and go forwards, not backwards. This legislation goes backwards. I think that, up until recently, Australia had a proud record; we made a number of mistakes but we were getting there. We were leading the charge in international forums in relation to human rights. Human rights is now off the agenda, as far as foreign affairs is concerned; it is all about trade.
As we deny the human rights of our own indigenous Australians—our first Australians—and those who are less able and fortunate in the community, and as we deny access to justice of most Australians—as these changes that are being brought to the parliament will do—we will stand condemned, because we are in breach of international obligations in a whole range of areas. Frankly, it all stems from the top, so the Prime Minister does bear the responsibility. In the end, the buck stops with him. You have to go to the detail, and when you go to the detail and they say to us that there is no financial impact—as they do in the explanatory memorandum—that is garbage, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Mr Abbott), who is at the table, knows that. In the end, you will be judged by your record, and it is a sorry record. Is it any wonder that people are moving to simplistic solutions when there has been a betrayal of trust? This legislation is a betrayal of trust. It is a betrayal of the policies that were abandoned. The electorate was told, `No, we're not going down that path. We've abandoned the Fightback proposal.' But this bill is a Fightback agenda. Dr Hewson might not have attained the prime ministership, but this Prime Minister is implementing his policies.
The bill implements the government's foreshadowed reforms to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. In particular, the bill (a) renames the commission as the Human Rights and Responsibilities Commission; (b) restructures the commission to replace the specialist commissioners with a president and three deputy presidents; (c) allegedly refocuses the objectives of the commission to make education, dissemination of information on human rights and assistance to business and the general community the focus of the commission's functions; (d) requires the commission to seek the leave of the Attorney-General before engaging in litigation—and I will come back to that—(e) removes the advisory committees to the commission; (f) prohibits the president from delegating the complaint handling function to the more specialised deputy commissioners; (g) removes the power of the commission to recommend damages; (h) removes the barrier to appointing a person as a member of the commission who is over 65 years of age; (i) abolishes the position of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner; (j) abolishes the position of Race Discrimination Commissioner and the Community Relations Council; and (k) establishes the new separate office of the Privacy Commissioner.
Despite the government's claim that the new structure will make the commission more efficient, the explanatory memorandum to the bill states that it has no financial impact. Indeed, as the most recent round of estimates hearings indicates, the government still does not have any idea of how much it will cost to establish the new separate Office of the Privacy Commissioner.
With regard to the structure of the commission, the vast majority of these amendments implement an entirely new structure for the commission. In doing so, they remove the positions of the specialist commissioners whose expertise is vital in the determination and investigation of human rights matters. They also reduce the flexibility of the commission to engage in the complaint handling function. It follows that the Labor Party opposes these amendments.
In his second reading speech, the Attorney-General claimed that this bill represents a fundamental cultural change for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. He claimed that the bill would make education the commission's new priority. He also claimed that the bill would enhance the commission's role in assisting business. But the reality of the Howard government's human rights policy is vastly different from that.
It is well known that the government has an historical hostility to the ability of individual Australians to enforce human rights. Instead, it seeks to rely on the amorphous sense that education will make sure that people treat each other with the respect they deserve. Whilst education plays an important role in developing greater compliance with our human rights obligations, such mechanisms do not protect individuals from or give them redress concerning breaches of their human rights.
What the government fails to understand is that an effective and well resourced complaint handling and inquiry process is central to the development of a healthy human rights culture. It does so through highlighting individual examples or the plights of groups of people within our society who are living with discrimination. The personalising of these problems is one of the most effective means to educate the people about human rights. All of us will have seen in recent years numerous examples of decisions or reports by the commission that incited public interest and debate.
Secondly, the government's argument assumes that these reforms are about enhancing the ability of the commission to educate the public. The reality is that this government's budget cuts to the commission have actually reduced the ability of the commission to engage in public education and awareness campaigns. In 1995-96 the commission spent almost $595,000 in real terms, not including salary and administrative expenses, on community and public education campaigns. The 1996-97 budget cuts reduced that amount to $539,000. This year it was reduced to $425,000. In total, the commission's education budget has been cut by 28.5 per cent.
In related campaigns, the government's promised anti-racism education campaign is yet to commence—over two years after it was promised and over 18 months since the rise of the member for Oxley (Ms Hanson). The campaign, which was originally meant to be a two-year, $10 million campaign, was cut in the 1996-97 budget to a one-year, $5 million campaign; in 1997-98 it was cut to a one-year, $4.5 million campaign—and it was not even funded in this year's budget.
Instead of educating Australians, the attitude survey undertaken by the government was little more than push polling which peddled some of the most objectionably racist views I have heard in a while. The reality is that this government has no commitment to educating Australians about the need to respect each other's human rights. This clause is nothing more than a hypocritical sham being perpetrated by this government to justify its attempts to emasculate an agency it has always hated.
This government would rather play wedge politics through its highly divisive attacks on native title, Aboriginal welfare and its history of playing footsy with the One Nation Party. I do not put the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs in that category, but I certainly do put the Prime Minister in that category. For this government to pretend that it cares one iota about the human rights of ordinary Australians is an insult to our intelligence.
In relation to the Attorney-General's supervision of the ability of the commission to engage in litigation, consistent with this government's hatred and mistrust of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, the government has taken the unprecedented step of seeking to remove its independent discretion to engage in litigation. No such similar control is placed by this government on any other similar independent agency, whether it be the ACCC, the ASC, the Commonwealth Ombudsman or the DPP. This provision is fundamentally objectionable and exposes the government's agenda for what it truly is. It follows that the Labor Party could never condone such an amendment. You talk about an independent commission, yet you have the Attorney-General riding shotgun over them.
The bill also undermines the power of the commission to award damages against government departments. This provision pre-empts debate on a Labor Party amendment to the No. 1 bill, which will allow the commission to continue to be able to make binding determinations affecting Commonwealth departments and agencies. The Labor Party opposes that amendment for this reason. I do not propose to discuss this amendment further, other than to indicate that, for the obvious reason, the Labor Party opposes it.
Finally, the bill removes a inappropriate age discrimination provisions in relation to appointments. Consistent with Labor Party policy, we will support this provision. However, amending the bill so as to merely pass this clause seems rather pointless. Accordingly, the Labor Party will not support this clause in this context. Rather, we will move an identical amendment in the context of debate in the Senate on the No. 1 bill.
It follows that the Labor Party opposes this bill, and we will be voting against it in the second and third readings. The bill is nothing more than a deception on the people of Australia. Contrary to the Attorney-General's second reading speech, this bill is not about a more efficient commission focused on the delivery of community education about discrimination. Rather, it is a further attack on what was once an internationally admired institution, an institution used as a model by others in establishing their own human rights bodies.
This bill is the ultimate representation of the antipathy this government feels to the rights of ordinary Australians. This bill is undemocratic, it is deceitful and it is, despite the recent overuse of the words, truly un-Australian. It is yet another sign that this government sold out to the Hansonite agenda. It is disgraceful and should be opposed by all decent thinking Australians, and the Labor Party will be opposing it.
What concerns me is this: we have a Prime Minister who prided himself on free speech when he went to Brisbane a short while ago, shortly after the member for Oxley made her first speech. He went out and said, `We should have free speech.' The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission is fundamental to that free speech. It is fundamental to scrutinising the excesses of departments and a whole range of organisations and individuals. And what do we do? We have a Prime Minister in bed with those who peddle the speech of hate and division and saying, `Let's have that.' Any organisation to the contrary—the churches—that rise up on matters of principle are condemned out of hand.
What you have here is a campaign to undermine the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission—to gut it for the sake of more efficiency. It is not efficiency; it is cutting the services. A cut is a cut is a cut is a cut. It is a different philosophy. I know that there are those in the government who do not support this but are powerless to do anything about it.
This bill will not get past first base between now and the next election. This bill will drop off the agenda. It will not reach the agenda in the Senate, and we will oppose it. If we come to government, it will never see the light of day. If we are not elected, we will continue to oppose it in the next parliament because it is a backward step for this nation. It is a backward step by a backward government led by a backward Prime Minister.
We should be going forward. We should be in a period of celebration. In the year 2000 we will be on show to the world. Instead, what has happened is that we have become inward looking. We have backroom deals taking place, where the rights of our first Australians, who were finally recognised belatedly by the High Court, are being ripped away or attempted to be ripped away by this government. Why?
Is it any wonder that there is a rise of a third force in this country, if you look at the opinion polls. Why? Because there is a lack of leadership at the moment from the top, and this legislation is indicative of it. This legislation is unworthy of support—and I know there are honourable members on the other side that will get up dutifully and support the government's legislation. That is their job. Often I had to do it, but what I did was to remain silent. I got rolled a number of times in the last parliament from the back bench. I always fought the good fight, but I did not get up and say that black was white at any stage. This legislation does not survive the faintest scrutiny.
We have a reputation for having different views, and I know that some of the views expressed have some merit. I am not talking about an argument of this or that or whatever—you can have policy differences—but there is a fundamental shift in this legislation. This legislation is not about efficiency but about tearing the heart out of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission—neutering them, gutting them, not giving them resources, silencing them and putting them under the umbrella of the Attorney-General so that they do not pursue.
I favour the human rights bodies, the auditors-general, for keeping the executive honest, but too often governments become precious. Do not think that we in the last government did not get whacked around the head a number of times by the human rights commission and other bodies, because we did, but we never did this sort of trick. We never came back at them in this vindictive way, in this underhanded way. Frankly, that is why there is despair at the moment: the lack of leadership at the top. The garbage that this legislation presents to this parliament is not the way forward. (Time expired)