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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18796


Ms PLIBERSEK (9:00 PM) —I rise tonight to speak about a trend in Australian society today that greatly concerns me. I am very worried that this government is setting out to prevent criticism in the community, to undermine independent public comment and organisations and groups that scrutinise the government. The most obvious examples are in two recent pieces of legislation that have been debated in this place. The first is the Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Bill 2003 we dealt with in the last session in this place.

The establishment of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1996 was opposed by the Liberal and National parties and there has been a determined campaign since then to undermine the commission. Legislation was introduced a few years ago to attempt to do this and again more recently, with the same intention. The attacks began with the Howard government's first budget when the commission suffered an ongoing reduction of $6 million over three years. As a result of those budget cuts, the commission made 60 staff redundant, left two of its specialist commissioner positions vacant and closed its regional offices. Shortly after that there was the first legislative attack—the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1998—which was subject to scathing criticism at the time even by members of the government in the Senate committee process.

Unfortunately we are seeing the resurrection of that legislation at the moment with the proposed restriction on intervention by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The more recent bill would require the commission to seek the permission of the Attorney-General before exercising its power of intervention in court and tribunal proceedings and also that court submissions accord with the interests of the community as a whole, whatever that means. I would have thought it would have been in the interests of the community as a whole to end discrimination against all sorts of groups in the community. The implication of the legislation is that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has been looking after the rights of minorities at the expense of the community as a whole.

That was a measure contained in the 1998 bill and criticised at the time by both opposition and government members. The reason it was not acceptable at the time, and is still not acceptable, is that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission intervenes only very rarely. It intervenes appropriately in court matters and provides excellent value for money when it does intervene. If you have a look at the McBain case in which it did intervene, you will see that the cost to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission was about $8,000 compared with the government's cost of about $235,000. It would seem that HREOC manages its interventions much better than the government manages its legal costs.

The second major problem with this legislation is the abolition of the specialist commissioners. We know the excellent work that the commissioners have done over time. Just a few examples are the age discrimination legislation which has come from the HREOC inquiry recently, the work of Sev Ozdowski on children in immigration detention, the work of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward on paid maternity leave and the work of Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Jonas on combating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians. All of these things provide excellent value for money and play such an important role in the Australian community that it seems a shame to throw this work on to specialist commissioners who cannot possibly have the same detailed knowledge of the very important areas that we are talking about. The loss of power to recommend compensation is also very important. The change of name and the proposal to include by-lines on correspondence seem trivial to me and not particularly useful.

The other area I wanted to speak about—but of course I have run out of time—is the proposed changes to tax legislation that would make it very difficult for charities to criticise the government and still keep their tax exempt status. It is just one more attempt to silence dissent and stop people from criticising the government.