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Thursday, 4 May 1989
Page: 1811

Senator McMULLAN(4.02) —In dealing with the motion to take note of the annual report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission of Australia, I want to refer for the first time in the Senate, but not for the first time, to a very important issue arising here in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). The issue arises out of that section of the report which deals with the regional arrangement between the Human Rights Commission-if I might use that short title-and the various State governments to act in agency relationship on behalf of the commission, while also discharging their obligations under State equal opportunity legislation.

I made a call some 12 months ago for the Human Rights Commission, as it then was, to establish an office here in Canberra, not as a national office-I still support the transfer of the national office to Sydney-so that there may be effective local access for those people who need the assistance of the Human Rights Commission here in Canberra without having to go to Sydney. For many of us, going to Sydney for access to public sector instrumentalities is a very straightforward matter. Apart from that, there is the capacity to make telephone contact. However, the very nature of the people who need the support of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission is such that they are less likely to have the time during working hours to go to Sydney or, if they have the time, have the money to make the trip, and less able to make effective telephone communications, if they have the money for the call.

Canberra is the only capital city in Australia which has no representation concerning human rights of any sort. Of course, there are many States where there is an effective agency relationship, and there are other States which have regional offices of the Human Rights Commission. My first request was that there should be a regional office of the Human Rights Commission in Canberra. That is very difficult to achieve, is expensive and I understand the difficulties which the Commission has faced. But we are now in the situation where an ACT Government is to be formed next week, and I want to put firmly on its agenda, as a very high priority, that it should move to establish, in an agency relationship with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, a local anti-discrimination board which can deal with the relevant local legislation, some of which exists and some of which should very quickly be enacted. That authority could then act as the local agency to represent the Human Rights Commission dealing with the national aspect of the Race Relations Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and other human rights problems.

The nature of the demand for such representation is fairly easily discerned when one considers the nature of the groups which have come forward to support the calls that I and others have made to establish this Canberra office of the Human Rights Commission. I was gratified, in the first instance, to have the support of the Ethnic Communities Council of the ACT, because one of its concerns is that people who have difficulty with the English language, and who have recently entered this country, are disproportionately represented in their early years in the lower socio-economic groups of our society, and do not have the capacity to effectively liaise with a Sydney-based office, even if they are aware of its existence.

If we can get a one-stop shop here in Canberra, where they may not be sure whether they are dealing with ACT or Commonwealth legislation, they will know that if they have a question concerning discrimination it is to that office that they should go. That will substantially enhance such access to the rights of the citizens of Canberra, and the citizens in the regions of surrounding New South Wales. I hope that the New South Wales Government will see its way clear to make a contribution through the contribution it currently makes to the anti-discrimination board, and some of its work may be conducted here. Other groups, such as the Women's Electoral Lobby and the Council for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled, have also come forward, recognising the importance of access to this very important body, and they support the call.

I hope that this call today will be the first in what will be a very short and, hopefully, quickly successful campaign to put on the agenda of the newly-elected ACT Government the establishment of an agency which can deal with anti-discrimination matters here in Canberra and be the local agent of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission which, I hope, will be pleased to contribute to that agency relationship.