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Friday, 28 November 1986
Page: 2987


Senator DURACK(11.35) —We have had a lengthy debate on these two Bills, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Bill and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (Transitional Provisions and Consequential (Amendments) Bill, on two occasions. They were first introduced into this chamber towards the end of last year, nearly 12 months ago, and were debated as part of a Bill of Rights package earlier this year. The Opposition strongly resists the allegations that have been made about filibusters. The Government has well and truly been caught out about the allegations it made about a record time, which has now been proven to be quite false and not supported by any of the statistics of the Senate. Nevertheless, there was a very substantial debate then and we have had another very substantial debate this week on the two Bills.

The Opposition has been most concerned to ensure the fullest debate on this matter. We opposed the second reading of these two Bills when they were put to the Senate earlier this year. We remain implacably opposed to them and, of course, we are opposed to the third reading. We will divide and vote on the third reading. We will do so because we want to emphasise, in the clearest and firmest way available to us as Opposition senators, that we believe that the Government is embarking upon a completely wrong course for the future in re-establishing and souping up, so to speak, the existing Human Rights Commission. The Human Rights Commission was set up by the Fraser Government as an experiment in this field and with the view to giving effect to the obligations we incurred when we ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We put a sunset clause into the legislation, which indicates that we looked at the Commission as an experiment. We believe that it is an experiment that has failed and failed dismally.

Of course, we are not obliged under the International Covenant to have a body such as the Human Rights Commission. Under the terms of the Covenant, Australia, or any other signatory or party to that Covenant, is obliged to take effective action to give meaning to its obligations. As we have always known, and as we knew when we ratified the Covenant, overwhelmingly the laws of Australia, both Federal and State, do observe the rules and obligations of the Covenant. Indeed, the rating of Australia in the world for its observance of human rights is right up in the 90-plus percentage. That is really at the top of world ratings. I suppose we are part of the vast minority of countries in the world which observe those basic standards of human rights. Under our legal and political systems, which we inherited from the United Kingdom, they have evolved. We enjoy them under our present legal and political system, and have done in the past, and we will continue to enjoy them if we observe the time-honoured methods of enforcing those standards in our community. They will be enforced only if we have a free society-one in which there is a free and active democratic system, as we undoubtedly have in this country, and an independent and fearless judiciary. Those are the ways in which we can continue to maintain our system and the ways in which we can continue to observe the obligations that we have assumed under this Covenant.

As we have said, there is clearly a role for conciliation as a method of enforcing a number of these human rights values, such as rules of anti-sex discrimination or anti-racial discrimination. We have legislation on those matters and there are obligations against discrimination in a number of areas. We believe that this legislation has gone far too far by giving the Minister the power to declare categories of discrimination in the future, albeit that, as a result of amendments to this legislation, that will be subject to disallowance by the Parliament. But, as Senator Harradine pointed out so clearly in the debate earlier this week, that is not as effective a method of controlling the Minister as if he had to come to Parliament with amendments to the legislation.

I reiterate only that, despite amendments that may have been made, other amendments that have been made to this legislation in the Committee stage make it even worse from our point of view. We remain extremely suspicious of the Government's intentions as to the composition of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the appointment of staff. As has been pointed out by Senator Reid, the Commission will be moved from Canberra to Sydney. That will cause a large number of resignations from the existing staff and opportunities for this Government to influence the appointment of new staff. It certainly gives the Government the opportunity to appoint virtually its own Commission. A new President and a new Human Rights Commissioner are to be appointed, and a new Race Discrimination Commissioner will be appointed because the Bill abolishes the present Office of the Commissioner for Community Relations. The Sex Discrimination Commissioner has already been appointed by this Government, and that office is the only continuing one. The only office to be continued is the one appointed by the Government. We can rest assured that this Government will appoint people of its own political sympathies to these new positions. Rumours are rife that jobs for the boys are clearly in contemplation.

We believe that the passage of this legislation is a totally wrong course for Australia to take. We will continue to oppose it. I reiterate that our policy pledges to repeal this legislation and abolish this Commission, if the Senate passes the legislation, as unfortunately it seems hell-bent on doing because of the support of the Australian Democrats. I reiterate our opposition to it and our clear undertaking that on return to government this will be one of the first of a large number of statutory bodies that will be abolished.

Question put:

That the Bills be now read a third time.