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Wednesday, 17 February 1999
Page: 2991


Dr THEOPHANOUS (1:20 PM) —I wish to support the general thrust of the shadow minister in his comments on the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 1998 . I have been concerned for a number of years about the importance of ensuring that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in this country should have the ability to express itself, to be aboveboard, and to be independent. When the Howard government was elected, funding was significantly reduced to the point now where we have reached nearly a 50 per cent reduction in the funds for the commission.

In the light of the fact that the government is talking about its wonderful surpluses and how much money it has, this cut to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission is totally unjustified on economic grounds and is obviously totally unjustified on social equity grounds. The Prime Minister does not understand the importance of Australia's reputation internationally in these matters. It is very important, when it comes to issues of human rights, not only that there are laws in place, but also that the laws are implemented.

I was saying earlier today, in the Main Committee in fact, that it is all very well to talk about human rights or people's rights or non-discrimination in a number of areas—including, for example, migration—but it is the practice which is important. And just as in our migration program and in our visitors visas program we have very serious questions about whether the practice is resulting in a non-discriminatory situation, we also have the problem here now with these cuts to the commission as to whether they are going to be unable to carry out their duties in an independent way to actually in practice fairly deliver what they have been set up to do.

Of course, we did have a problem with the Brandy case, so the government decided that it was going to bring in this legislation to fix up the matter. We support that. But the government failed to take the opportunity to put in place a number of other provisions that would show the people of this nation and internationally that it was real and fair-din kum about the issues concerning anti-discrimination legislation.

I might say that we used to have a totally independent Race Discrimination Commissioner. That has gone. We now have a commissioner within the act. But that commissioner has limited powers, as do the Disability Discrimination Commissioner and the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. So we have got rid of the previous system and put in place a pale shadow of that system. And we have cut the resources and then we go around saying, `Of course, in Australia we have great human rights legislation.' We do not. And this bill does nothing to fix that up.

I want to commend the shadow minister on the amendments he wishes to move, because these amendments are important and substantial. These amendments will try, within the context of what is possible now, to fix up some of the problems that have been referred to. That will show that we are serious about taking up some of the issues that have arisen, such as the question of class actions in the Federal Court. It seems to me that when it comes to the issue of human rights you have to have a process not only for an individual who feels aggrieved but also for communities, for groups of people who have something in common and feel their rights have been trampled on.

We must go forward into the 21st century with Australia having a reputation for being a country that is fair and just in the area of human rights. And let me tell you that those countries that are not going to do this are going to see an international response to the failure to put into place real, genuine, human rights provisions.

The human rights commission produced the report Bringing them home about the lost generation. That highlighted to the world one of the big problems that had occurred with our indigenous people. That report was discussed by this parliament, and many people expressed profound regret at what had happened. We developed the idea of saying sorry to the indigenous people about this matter. All this came out of the good work of the commission. Of course we had the unfortunate fact that the Prime Minister to this day refuses to say sorry and express regret in relation to that generation of Aboriginal people who were taken from their homes as children, brought up in a foreign culture, and not given the opportunity to connect with their own families or even to understand and learn about their own backgrounds.

But the whole range of issues which the human rights commission deals with are important within the whole meaning of democracy. Democracy is nothing without rights. What distinguishes democracy is not just elections; it is respect for people's rights within the democratic state, within the structure—their rights not to be discriminated against on the basis of race or ethnic background, on the basis of any disability that they have, or on the basis of their gender. And all of these issues are still being confronted in this society. There still is discrimination on the basis of race and on the basis of ethnic background.

The reports of the commission over the years have indicated this, especially the report, for example, of the Race Discrimination Commissioner. And these discriminations are not just the blunt discriminations of racial abuse that were encouraged unfortunately by the One Nation Party and others. It is more than that. It is the subtle discriminations. It is the discrimination in the workplace. It is the discriminations in the promotion process. It is the discrimination, for example, even in the Public Service itself, where we still have discrimination against women, we still have discrimination against people of ethnic background.

There was some progress made under the previous Labor government in relation to tackling these matters—the access and equity program, the equal opportunity program. But these programs have been emasculated by the current government. And the body which is responsible for bringing these issues to public attention, for negotiating issues, and for dealing with complaints has also been dramatically cut.

It is not as if—notwithstanding what the Treasurer might say—we are in a situation where the Treasurer cannot afford to fund this commission to the level at which it was previously funded. Of course he can, and he knows that he can. And so does the Prime Minister. They are in a situation where they ought to do this and I am hoping that they will in the future.

I am hoping that they will rethink their position, even in relation to the amendments being moved by the opposition and also being moved in the Senate. Let us hope that the government will rethink their position and adopt these amendments. I should point out that some of these amendments were actually recommended by the joint parliamentary committee on these matters but, while some minor amendments were adopted, the majority were not adopted.

I urge the government to consider these, and to keep in mind what I have said. It is not really a costly exercise to restore the funding of the commission, in light of the total budget, but it is an important symbolic exercise, and it is important for those who have suffered from discrimination and who have complaints. It is very important to them. It is very important that we have an image as a fair country, not only internationally but to the people concerned.

I have had people come to my office who have presented the most anguished cases of clear discrimination on the basis of race, gender and disability. You feel in a helpless situation when you try to put into place the processes that are supposed to be there to help these people, because it is so difficult. As the member for Barton has said, we are going to try to simplify the process. We are going to try to assist the people to have some resources to have their complaints properly heard.

On the basis of fairness, on the basis of equity and on the basis of a set of other principles, I think we need to be in a situation where we can do something to show the community—and the international community—that we support these principles of human rights.

I remember the reports of the Race Discrimination Commissioner over the years. What each commissioner has had to say has been very valuable because each time the commissioner has presented to the parliament a full report of the problems that we as a society have in terms of race discrimination. The previous commissioner, Zita Antonios, did a very good job in presenting those issues to us.

We need to take up those questions in a serious way as a society. It is no good pronouncing ourselves a multicultural society and then not being in a position to actually implement the meaning of multiculturalism in terms of nondiscrimination. Similarly, it is no good our saying, `We are a society in which men and women are to be treated equally,' while allowing situations where there is blunt discrimination—for example, the discrimination against women in the armed forces that has been recently revealed.

Disabled people suffer a lot in our community. In some of our states they have been discarded. We have shifted a lot of responsibility for issues concerning disabled people to state governments—something that some people want to do in a range of areas. For example, we complained about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Bill that went through the House of Representatives the other day, because it gives away the constitutional power of the Commonwealth in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues and moves the responsibility to the states.

A lot of that has happened in relation to the disabled. And what have we got? In some states people who are suffering from disabilities are in a very serious situation. This is true especially of people with mental disabilities. Some of them have been kicked from pillar to post and have ended up in the most inhumane circumstances. In Melbourne, for example, some people have ended up in various hostels, homes and second-rate hotels where they are not looked after, because their relatives have not had the economic support to be able to support them. They have ended up being abused by people and, in some cases, suffering from gross poverty of the kind that we do not want to see in this country: malnutrition and other such circumstances.

We need a powerful commission. We need a commission that has teeth, that is able to act on behalf of people and give them resources to pursue their cases so that they can achieve justice when they have been discriminated against. The government has failed in this matter. It should restore the funding of the commission, and it should support the amendments of the opposition to strengthen the commission so that we can hold our heads up high and say that in Australia we have human rights legislation and a commission that is able to do the job in a fair way for our people.