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Wednesday, 28 March 1984
Page: 791

Senator MISSEN —My question, addressed to the Attorney-General, relates to the powers presently vested in the Human Rights Commission and, in particular, the doubts that exist as to its effective right to investigate denials of freedom of speech and thought by State governments which have national and indeed international ramifications. I draw the Attorney-General's attention to an article in the Australian of 15 February 1984 by Dr Ross Fitzgerald of Griffith University, claiming that academic freedom is under threat in Queensland especially at the college of advanced education level, which is more under Queensland Government control than is the university level. Does the article disclose a number of threats to free speech and to discussion of public issues on CAE campuses? Will the Attorney-General comment on Dr Fitzgerald's claim that , with the Queensland Cabinet having control over both attendances of academics at overseas conferences and all new technical and further education and CAE courses and courses at James Cook University, and with all tertiary administrations appearing to have acquiesced in the Government's direct political involvements in the vetting of research, the way is open for a determined anti-intellectual witch hunt with McCarthyist overtones?

The PRESIDENT —Order! Will the honourable senator ask his question? Others want to ask questions, too.

Senator MISSEN —I know, Mr President. I have waited a month to ask this question and I hope I will have your indulgence to complete it. In the light of these serious claims, I ask the Attorney-General: Firstly, does the Government accept that even under its limited powers there is, and ought to be, some responsibility by the Human Rights Commission in reporting in this area; and, secondly, will the Government's proposed amendments to the Human Rights Commission clarify this situation?

Senator GARETH EVANS —The answer on both counts is yes. I am afraid that in the course of the one month I have been waiting to answer Senator Missen's question, of which I had some advance notice, whatever notes I might have had have drifted into the system so I am unable to do more than give an impressionistic response to the detail, which no doubt will please Senator Chaney and honourable senators opposite no end. The reality is that there are all sorts of unhappy human rights invading things occurring north of the Tweed. That has been the case for some years. The Government is well aware of it. There is an overwhelming case for national human rights legislation being promulgated, not the toothless variety that was the commitment of the previous Government. There is a case for the Human Rights Commission having a jurisdiction in that respect. A Queensland regional director of the Human Rights Commission has just been appointed and I believe that appointment shortly will be announced, and the opening of a Queensland regional office will be accomplished in due course. At the moment there are very limited jurisdictional respects in which the Human Rights Commission can operate on the ground in Queensland; it really applies only in the context of the Racial Discrimination Act. It will also shortly be in the context of the Sex Discrimination Act. But there is an excellent case for expanding in due course the scope of our legislative and administrative backup in that particular area.