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Wednesday, 26 November 1986
Page: 2763


Senator PUPLICK(12.09) —I want to speak in terms of the general matters that Senator Durack has raised rather than to intervene in relation to any of the specifics of the amendments-with one exception that I will refer to when we come to them. Firstly, it is important to re-emphasise the point that Senator Durack made in the course of his remarks about the commitment that the Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia have to the principles of the Racial Discrimination Act and the Sex Discrimination Act, and to say that they are not in question in this debate; nor is our commitment, as the Opposition parties, to the principles enshrined in those pieces of legislation in any way under question; nor indeed are there any questions about our adherence to the most significant international human rights covenants. They have been accepted by the Opposition parties as a proper and legitimate test and as a proper and legitimate set of standards against which Australian domestic law can be judged.

As Senator Durack said, ratification of the principal one of those covenants was an act of the Fraser Government. I speak, therefore, with a degree of disappointment about this legislation as one who back in 1981 participated in the debates about the establishment of the Human Rights Commission and who looked forward to its effective operation. It has to be said that it would have taken a great deal for both me and my late friend and colleague, Alan Missen, to have been brought to the point at which we were prepared to vote against the constitution of this operation had we not been profoundly disappointed at the way in which the Commission had operated in its period of existence. Quite recently, I looked back at the debates when the Commission was established and at the contributions that I, Alan Missen and a number of others made. We looked forward with a great deal of anticipation and hope to achieving some progress in establishing a better community understanding of what human rights issues were.

It was with a great deal of disappointment that we saw those hopes betrayed, frustrated and indeed set at nought, essentially by the creeping practice of bureaucracy. We were disappointed-I was particularly disappointed-to see that, in moving into an area of so-called education, instead of attempting to educate Australians in any sense simply about human rights facts, the Commission in its various publications decided to embark upon certain ideological courses of its own which by their very nature were destined and doomed to divide rather than to unite community opinion.

Statements were made in publications, authorised by the Commission, which were nothing more than blinkered, ideological attacks upon the system of capitalism, for instance. In one of the publications capitalism was blamed for everything-every ill and every evil. About the only thing that the capitalist system was not blamed for was the spread of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome-and I would not have been at all surprised to have seen that in the second version of the document. That sort of thing clearly does not serve to advance the community debate about human rights; rather, it serves to divide along political lines in Australia those who believe in human rights protection from those who seek to use it as a political tool and indeed as a partisan tool.

The Commission, not through anything that the Parliament did or through anything that was inherent in the legislation, got itself into a situation where it developed a reputation for Star Chamber behaviour, for unreasonable decisions, for unreasonable practices and for not concentrating upon absolutely basic and fundamental issues. It took the peripheral issues which did not go centrally to human rights questions and sought, by the nature of the cases pursued and the reports put to the Parliament, to trivialise significant issues. It was even rebuked in large part by the Attorney-General on certain deportation matters, such as the various rights claimed by Australian children born of parents subject to deportation orders. The Attorney-General had to publish, in commentary upon one of the Commission's reports, his own brief statements saying basically how much he disagreed with the Commission and how he was not prepared to allow the Commission to seek to take away the fundamental rights of any government to determine who should and who should not be allowed to stay in the country once that person had acquired the status of being a prohibited non-citizen.

Instead of tackling absolutely major questions about sex discrimination, racial discrimination and the adequacy of Commonwealth laws to protect human rights throughout Australia, the Commission allowed itself to become a political tool. It was used as a political tool in a number of instances concerning the domestic law of Queensland. It was quite clear that the Government at the time sought to use the Commission, not to advance the debate about human rights in Australia, but rather as a weapon in its constitutional and political clash with one of the State governments.

It gives me no joy to say that a body from which I had hoped for so much at its establishment has so completely disappointed my hopes and expectations. When this legislation was first introduced and when the Opposition parties were the government parties, a number of us were prepared to take views which were quite divergent from the views of the majority of our colleagues to try to get a strong and sensible human rights regime and organisation in this country. We expected a great deal of it. We believed that, building on the substantial record which Australia had, and has always had, in the international community for its concern and protection of human rights, here was an opportunity to take that one step further. Those of us who have been involved in United Nations associations, in Amnesty International, in the International Commission of Jurists and in councils of civil liberties, and who I think cannot be accused of having a negative approach to human rights and civil liberties questions, view this debate and the point we have reached in it with enormous personal disappointment.

We are convinced that we must wind up this bureaucracy and get back to the essential spirit which led us to be supporters of human rights legislation and the Human Rights Commission. The Commission has decided to allow itself to become, without resisting, a political tool in the hands of the government of the day, has trivialised many human rights issues and concerns and has failed to provide anything in the community which could substantially contribute to broadening community support for human rights, human rights instruments and international covenants. We are prepared to say that this body should be wound up. The Opposition parties in no way retreat from the support we have given to the Racial Discrimination Act, to the Sex Discrimination Act, to Australia's participation in international human rights activities or to Australia's adherence to various international human rights covenants. This is perhaps one of the most salutary lessons of what can happen when one allows great ideals to become the playthings of self-serving bureaucracies. We are determined not to allow that situation to continue.