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- Start of Business
- QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
- DISTINGUISHED VISITORS
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
(Stone, Sharman, MP, Fischer, Tim, MP)
One Nation Party
(Beazley, Kim, MP, Fischer, Tim, MP)
(Kelly, De-Anne, MP, Fahey, John, MP)
(Beazley, Kim, MP, Howard, John, MP)
(Cameron, Eoin, MP, Reith, Peter, MP)
(McMullan, Bob, MP, Williams, Daryl, MP)
(Kelly, Jackie, MP, Reith, Peter, MP)
(Crean, Simon, MP, Moore, John, MP)
(Nugent, Peter, MP, Downer, Alexander, MP)
Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport
(Filing, Paul, MP, Zammit, Paul, MP)
(Billson, Bruce, MP, Costello, Peter, MP)
Goods and Services Tax
(Evans, Gareth, MP, Costello, Peter, MP)
(Gambaro, Teresa, MP, Moylan, Judi, MP)
(Ferguson, Martin, MP, Thomson, Andrew, MP)
(Forrest, John, MP, Scott, Bruce, MP)
Goods and Services Tax
(Ellis, Annette, MP, Howard, John, MP)
Taxation: Foreign Corporations
(Hawker, David, MP, Costello, Peter, MP)
- PERSONAL EXPLANATIONS
- ONE NATION
- MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE
- BILLS RETURNED FROM THE SENATE
- STANDING AND SESSIONAL ORDERS
- HUMAN RIGHTS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL (No. 2) 1998
- REGIONAL FOREST AGREEMENTS BILL 1998
- TARIFF PROPOSALS
- CORPORATIONS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 1998
- SOCIAL SECURITY AND VETERANS' AFFAIRS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (BUDGET AND OTHER MEASURES) BILL 1997
- NATIONAL CAPITAL AUTHORITY
- ASSENT TO BILLS
- FAMILY LAW AMENDMENT BILL (No. 1) 1998
- REQUESTS FOR DETAILED INFORMATION: RESPONSE
QUESTIONS ON NOTICE
Indigenous Cultural Property
(Latham, Mark, MP, Wooldridge, Dr Michael, MP)
Department of Veterans' Affairs: Funding and Grants for the Electoral Division of Oxley
(Hanson, Pauline, MP, Scott, Bruce, MP)
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
(McClelland, Robert, MP, Wooldridge, Dr Michael, MP)
International Maritime Conventions: Australian Ratification
(Morris, Peter, MP, Reith, Peter, MP)
- Indigenous Cultural Property
Tuesday, 30 June 1998
Mr WILLIAMS (Attorney-General) (6:21 PM) —in reply—I assume that all members who wish to speak on the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1998 have now spoken. I would like to thank the members for Banks (Mr Melham), Bradfield (Dr Nelson), Chifley (Mr Price), Throsby (Mr Hollis), Brisbane (Mr Bevis), Batman (Mr Martin Ferguson), Jagajaga (Ms Macklin), Aston (Mr Nugent), Calwell (Dr Theophanous) and Dickson (Mr Tony Smith), who have contributed to the debate on the bill, and for their interest in it.
As I outlined in my second reading speech, this bill is intended to be the catalyst for fundamental cultural change in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The changes it proposes to the structure and functions of the commission are a step forward, not a backwards step as has been alleged during the debate. The changes aim to remove those aspects of the commission's current structure and operations which most inhibit its ability to effectively promote and protect the human rights of all Australians while retaining the protection currently available to them under the federal anti-discrimination legislation. This fundamental cultural change in the commission is reflected in its proposed new name, the Human Rights and Responsibilities Commission. The new name also reflects the importance of promoting an understanding of every Australian's responsibility to respect the human rights of others.
In the course of the debate on the bill, a number of issues have been raised by the members who have spoken. I propose to address some of those issues. The member for Banks has claimed that the government's reductions in the budget of the commission amount to some 55 per cent over five years. It is hardly a criticism of the current government, which has been in office for just over two years, but the claim is in any event wrong. If the member for Banks had checked his figures before talking about this, he would have known that the reduction in real terms amounts to only about 27 per cent over the last three years. This government was elected on a platform of fiscal responsibility after it inherited from the Labor government a large budget deficit which could not be sustained. The reductions in the commission's funding reflect a need across government to ensure that in difficult financial times funds are applied in an efficient manner. The commission was subjected to budget reductions and, like all agencies within the Attorney-General's portfolio, was also subject to the standard efficiency dividend of four per cent.
Additional reductions in the commission's funding can be clearly justified on other grounds. For example, reductions associated with the transfer of the commission's hearing and determination functions to the Federal Court are a natural consequence of the government's response to the High Court's decision in Brandy v. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. This change was not made to achieve savings but rather to reflect the fact that the commission would no longer be performing a particular function. Further `reductions' resulted from the completion of projects which had been allocated specific and limited funding. In reality, these are not reductions that all; rather, the loss of funding inevitably follows from the completion of the projects for which the additional funding had been provided.
The member for Chifley asked about the processes which led to the government's decision to restructure the commission and move from five specialist commissioners to three deputy presidents. He should know, and I happy to remind him, that it was in fact his own party when in government which established a tripartite review of the commission's structure and operations. That review involved the commission itself, along with my department and the then Department of Finance.
In response to the contention of the member for Jagajaga that there is simply no evidence that the current commission is inefficient and top-heavy, I would like to make it clear that it was the tripartite review to which I have just referred that identified a number of aspects of the current structure and operations of the commission which needed attention. I can add, from my own perspective, that it seemed odd to me that a portfolio agency would have at the deputy secretary level more persons than were in the department itself at the same time. The review also made a number of recommendations for changes to the structure and operations of the commission, many of which have been adopted by the government in this bill and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1), the Brandy bill, which is currently before the Senate.
The member for Banks also suggested that the government has been deliberately delaying debate on the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) in the Senate. Let me make it plain that I categorically reject this assertion. Delays have in fact arisen as a result of the opposition's very public stance against the worthwhile reforms proposed by that bill. As the Labor Party knows, those reforms are supported by the commission itself, which is anxiously awaiting the passage of the bill to remove the uncertainty which has been affecting its activities since the High Court's decision in Brandy. But it is not just the commission which has been affected. The government is very concerned at the impact of this unnecessary delay on persons who are currently parties to complaints under the Commonwealth's anti-discrimination legislation. While there is this delay, the big losers are the complainants and the respondents. The Senate can provide them with an effective and enforceable complaint handling system by passing the Brandy bill as soon as possible.
The member for Jagajaga criticised the Brandy bill on the basis of exposure to fees and costs in Federal Court proceedings that would result from passage of the bill. The provisions of that bill are not relevant to the bill we are debating, but I think there is an appropriate response to the criticisms which should be made. First, the cost regime in the Federal Court reflects arrangements under the existing system. A party seeking to enforce a commission determination in the Federal Court is already subject to the possibility of an adverse costs order. However, the removal of the unenforceable commission hearing function will provide parties who are unsuccessful at conciliation with direct access to the Federal Court. The scheme has the potential to redress significant delays in the current system and reduce the cost associated with obtaining a binding determination in anti-discrimination matters.
Secondly, it has always been the case that the usual rules for fees apply to anti-discrimination complaints in the Federal Court. However, in accordance with current practice, these fees are not payable where a person has a card entitling him or her to Commonwealth health benefits, is receiving legal aid, Austudy or Abstudy, is a minor or a prisoner or is a person who would suffer financial hardship if obliged to pay the fees.
Thirdly, the bill contains a number of initiatives designed to reduce cost and formality in Federal Court proceedings. The court will be able to adopt informal procedures, as it will not be bound by technicalities or legal forms. Special registry procedures will be established for human rights matters, and the commission will be able to assist with the preparation of forms necessary to commence proceedings in the Federal Court. Where there is hardship, either party to a proceeding will be able to apply to the Attorney-General for financial assistance for the proceedings.
Sitting suspended from 6.30 p.m. to 8.00 p.m.
Mr WILLIAMS —I will continue my address in reply on the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1998 . The member for Banks said that the Labor Party opposed the provisions in this bill which remove the commission's ability to recommend the payment of damages in relation to certain complaints, because of amendments they proposed to the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 1997 , currently in the Senate; that is, the Brandy bill. The Labor Party's amendments would retain the commission's power to impose binding determinations on Commonwealth agencies.
The member for Banks has, however, seriously confused two completely different categories of complaints which can be brought before the commission. The government's proposals in this bill are concerned with complaints under the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act of breaches of human rights or equal opportunity. These complaints do not result in any finding of unlawful conduct; rather, they may be the subject of a report to the Attorney-General, which must be tabled in the parliament. They involve not only Commonwealth agencies but, potentially, private citizens and organisations.
The Labor Party's amendments to the bill in the Senate deal with complaints of unlawful discrimination under the disability, racial and sex discrimination acts, so they would not assist in relation to the complaints which are the subject of this bill before the House. Currently, the commission can make non-binding recommendations for the payment of damages or compensation in relation to complaints under the HREOC act, alleging breaches of certain human rights, including by federal agencies, section 11(1)(f), or alleging that acts or practices, including by federal or state agencies, are impairing equality of opportunity in employment, section 31(b).
Under the government's proposed structure, the commission will retain the power to inquire into complaints of breaches of human rights or allegations of impairment of equality of opportunity, to attempt to conciliate them and, if necessary, to report to the Attorney-General in relation to those complaints. However, the commission will not retain its function of recommending the payment of compensation in respect of loss or damage arising out of such complaints.
Removal of this function is consistent with the commission being primarily a forum for the negotiation and conciliation of complaints, rather than a quasi-judicial forum adjudicating on people's rights. It is also consistent with the commission's new emphasis on educating and informing people about their human rights and responsibilities.
The honourable member for Banks and the honourable member for Reid (Mr Laurie Ferguson) have raised the question of the cost of establishing a separate office of the Privacy Commissioner. The bill will create a separate statutory office of the Privacy Commissioner. The office will consist of the Privacy Commissioner and her staff. There is no reason why the establishment of a separate statutory office of the Privacy Commissioner should involve any additional expense. There will be no change in the Privacy Commissioner's functions or powers. There will be no need to incur costs in setting up the office, as the Privacy Commissioner already functions independently within the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
The Privacy Commissioner has always operated with her own dedicated HREOC staff. To the extent that the Privacy Commissioner has previously been provided with administrative support centrally by the commission, I understand that she intends to continue to purchase such support from the commission. The act allows her to operate on this basis.
The creation of a separate office will provide the Privacy Commissioner with an opportunity to increase the profile, and thus the effectiveness, of her work in promoting the protection of individual privacy across all sectors. This increase in the profile of the Privacy Commissioner underlines the government's commitment to the protection of privacy.
The member for Calwell suggested that one of the government's aims in restructuring the commission is to remove those members of the commission who have been critical of the government's record on human rights issues. I wish to make it very clear that no decisions have been made in relation to the new deputy president positions, following the passage of this bill.
The government firmly believes that the commission's new structure and focus, which I have already outlined, will help it to contribute to the further enhancement of Australia's enviable reputation as a world leader in this area. However, such a major reorganisation of the commission necessarily involves establishing new positions of deputy presidents to replace the positions of specialist commissioners.
Given the fundamental changes in the focus of the commission, it is appropriate that the government have an opportunity to re-appraise all relevant aspects of its operations. Once the bill is passed into law the government will consider appointments to fill the deputy president positions.
As always when making these appointments the government will appoint the best possible people to fill the positions in the commission. The government's commitment in this respect has been demonstrated by its recent appointments of the new president of the commission and the new Sex Discrimination Commis sioner, both of whom received broad political and community support. We will appoint to the commission the most appropriately qualified and experienced people we can find, taking into account the functions and duties of the commission and of the deputy presidents themselves.
The member for Aston mentioned the regional work undertaken by the commission. While not directly relevant to the bill, I also commend the work done by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in promoting the establishment and development of human rights institutions within the Asian region.
The member for Calwell made numerous references to an access and equity program conducted in the former Office of Multicultural Affairs. In response to his comments, all I can say is I will draw the attention of the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (Mr Ruddock) to them.
The member for Dickson referred extensively to forensic experiences in relation to human rights cases. I do not propose to comment on any individual case. The member for Dickson also referred to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the fact that the coalition, as he put it, opposed the convention. In fact, the situation was that in 1993 the opposition moved disallowance of the declaration by the then government of the convention as a scheduled document to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act. There has been a lot happen since 1993 in relation to the convention, including an inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. I propose not to comment further, except to point out that that report is awaited with interest.
I again thank all honourable members whose interest has prompted them to contribute to the debate and who have given the bill careful consideration. I commend the bill to the House.
That the bill be now read a second time.