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Wednesday, 26 November 1986
Page: 2801


Senator DURACK(4.59) —As we are dealing with this group of amendments as a whole, I will speak first in general terms as to the structure of the Commission which the Government is proposing and leave other remarks about how it may operate and so forth to a later time in the Committee consideration of the legislation. I wish to reiterate the remarks that I made on behalf of the Opposition when the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Bill was dealt with in Committee some months ago. I pointed out then that the Opposition was very much opposed to the new structure of the Commission which is contained in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Bill 1985 which the Government now proposes to amend. The Bill, as it stood before these amendments were introduced, was unacceptable to the Opposition because it restructured the Commission in a way which turned it on its head.

The Human Rights Commission has existed for five years and when introduced by the Fraser Government it was envisaged that it would be a small, largely part time, advisory body to perform the function of looking at laws or proposed laws of the Commonwealth or acts and practices of officials of the Commonwealth and to advise the Government and the Parliament as to whether they, in any way, breached the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and one or two other conventions that were scheduled. The notion was that the Commission would be basically a very small advisory body, that some staff, of course, would be required, and that it would not create some new human rights industry with its own large bureaucracy. Unfortunately, this Government which has been in power for nearly four years, as a result of the funds that have been made available to the existing Human Rights Commission, which for two or three years have been about five times more than were made available under the Fraser Government, has, if not formally, changed in substance the structure of the existing Human Rights Commission.

The Human Rights Commission has obviously attracted a great many ideologues, as far as human rights are concerned, who have very much their own agendas. As has been said already in this debate by Senators Puplick and Walters, the Human Rights Commission has not worked as envisaged and there has not been the sort of control by the Commission, which we would have expected, of the advice it was giving. Why that has happened is perhaps for the history books or for discussion on other occasions. I do not want to take up time on that or to point bones at people, but I certainly support the comments of the two honourable senators and express my own disappointment at the way in which this Human Rights Commission has evolved.

As I said earlier in this debate today, I look at this as an experiment that has failed. It is a lesson that we have learnt and, as far as the Opposition is concerned, we certainly do not want to see it repeated. If these new amendments were passed, it would only make things worse. These amendments will finally turn the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission into a new bureaucracy. The members of the Commission, except the President, will be all full time. The staff employed will be full time and presumably will be in number something approaching the size of the present Commission, but the numbers will be likely to get bigger and not smaller. The role that the part time commissioners had under the Fraser Government's concept is entirely eliminated. I can only presume that the President is to be part time now because the person the Government had in mind does not want to devote his full time to the job because he is engaged in a much more remunerative activity than he would be under this, but we will ask some questions about that later.

These amendments will clearly totally change the concept of the Human Rights Commission which the Opposition envisaged when it introduced the Commission. As far as the Opposition's policy has developed, I have already indicated that we think we can get by very well indeed without any Human Rights Commission at all. We believe that the functions of government under the Sex Discrimination Act, the Racial Discrimination Act or indeed under any other legislation in the human rights area-such as a decent privacy Act which this Government has not done anything about in a significant way, despite all the rhetoric we used to hear from Senator Gareth Evans and others about introducing Australian Law Reform Commission reports without even reading them-should be performed by people such as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. They should perform the administrative and conciliatory roles and the actual determination functions, whether there has been any breach of the law or certainly the determination of any remedies, should follow along judicial lines or at least semi-judicial lines.

Statements made by the Attorney-General (Mr Lionel Bowen), which were pointed out to me by Senator Gareth Evans in debate earlier this year, indicate that he was thinking about, if not providing a determination function entirely by the courts, it at least being done by a body independent of the administration of the Human Rights Commission. Despite all the time that he has obviously had to think about this matter, he has not pursued that idea any further. It would have been an improvement on this proposal had there been some such division of responsibilities in that way. What we are going to end up with now is a bureaucratic body without, as I said, any part time input, apart from a President who will presumably be very busy with his other pursuits. There will be an advisory committee which has been put in as a sop to the people in the non-government organisations which were keen to participate in this exercise and whose role was acknowledged by the part time commissioners in the Fraser Government's legislation. I say no more about that.

I do not think the advisory committee could be seen to be in any way an effective instrument. What we are going to have is a souped-up version of the present Human Rights Commission which will have an increased bureaucratic aspect, which will presumably maintain the same people, many of whom seem to be there because they have their own personal agendas and interpretations of what amounts to human rights, what does not and what priorities are needed, and which really will increase the size of what I call the human rights industry. In most cases it will also have very extensive powers, perhaps not quite as extensive as had the Bill of Rights gone through, but virtually all those compulsory powers will be available. There is some confusion about just how and in what cases those compulsory powers will be fully utilised. We may need to have some further debate about this matter.

I am very concerned about the complexity of the legislation which will result from the totality of the amendments which the Government is now proposing. It will be more convenient to make my comments in relation to both the Bills-that is, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 1985 and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Amendment Bill 1985-because the result of both those Bills and the amendments that are now proposed, particularly the amendments to the transitional Bill, will be a highly complex structure. The Government says that its intention is to rationalise the Commission so that much the same powers will be exercised whether a matter is being dealt with under the Sex Discrimination Act or the Racial Discrimination Act and that may be a worthy cause.

However, functions and powers will be exercised by the new Human Rights Commissioner under other legislation-not the statutory powers that are exercised under the Sex Discrimination Act or the Racial Discrimination Act-to deal with discrimination generally. He will have different powers from the ones that would be exercised by the Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act or the Racial Discrimination Act. He will have different powers whether he is investigating a Commonwealth matter or a State matter. Generally speaking, the whole legislation is starting to get along the lines of the Income Tax Assessment Act or the Conciliation and Arbitration Act and to be a highly complex business in which the human rights bureaucracy will flourish. It will need more advice, more help and more people to cope with all this legislation and then we will have more legislation which will only create further problems. One can see what has been happening for the last 20 or 30 years in this country with the development of Federal legislation, Federal bureaucracies and the increasing size of government which has now become an enormous burden upon Australian taxpayers and it has to be wound back. Everything the Government does seems to expand that phenomenon, that tendency. This legislation, far from simplifying the administration of human rights questions in this country, will only be more complicated, greater and more expensive as a result of what the Government proposes to do. Those are the general comments I wish to make on this matter. I, and no doubt others, will be raising individual questions in this debate and proposing amendments. At this stage I simply reiterate that the Opposition has already opposed this new Commission; it will continue to oppose it and will oppose these amendments because the Opposition sees them as making matters even worse from its point of view. We will also continue to oppose this legislation at the third reading stage.