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Thursday, 30 March 2017
Page: 2744

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (13:11): In this particular process, I think it is important that we consider what has gone on in our community over the last 45 years, with people engaging in this process. I take the point that Senator Duniam made that people are not talking about these issues everywhere, but what we found in the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights' extensive committee hearings over the new year period was that people who really care about this process are talking about it. Something that became very clear was that there would never be absolute agreement, and that has been reinforced by that committee and also by the recent Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee hearings: we will not achieve agreement on this issue. What we have achieved is a wider discussion.

I have said before in this place that I think the process of the joint standing committee was truncated and rushed way too quickly. An issue had been raised about how the Racial Discrimination Act operated. Instead of taking a long-term, wider consideration of the process, the government tried to rush it. I question to this day why it was so necessary to have this particular process over the new year period, the end of January and early February, when community organisations were unable to have the time to really consider what the government was putting forward to the community. This issue had been raised a couple of years beforehand, there had been some community discussion and it was taken off the agenda. In fact, we were told by the government that it was no longer part of the current process to go forward with that. That was in 2014, I believe. But there was this rush to have a committee process, which can be, as you and I agree, Mr Acting Deputy President, the most valuable way for the Senate to work. The committee process is our link to the wider community. So to set up the joint standing committee process and then, I think, to have unseemly haste in the opportunity to talk with people was a disappointment to me.

But, even allowing for that, we had the most valuable interaction with organisations, legal professionals and people in the wider community who cared about the Racial Discrimination Act. Most importantly to me, there were people who were personally impacted by racial discrimination. Some of the most confronting evidence we had in every state was from people from different ethnic backgrounds who had actually been the subject of racial discrimination. Some were Aboriginal and Islander brothers and sisters, in my state of Queensland and in the Northern Territory, where we had gut-wrenching evidence about what it meant to face daily discrimination. We also had it from a range of different people who have different backgrounds but talked about the hope and the feeling that Australia would provide a welcoming and safe place for them and how they coped with the range of racial comments and racial behaviours that were, in fact, damaging and harmful.

Did all of those people use the Racial Discrimination Act? No, they did not, but most of them knew it was there. In terms of the reinforcement and the security that this act has provided, it is absolutely essential that the message is given clearly to our whole community that we understand the dangers of racial discrimination and that the parliament, the government and the society of Australia understand that and will put in place processes that will protect people's personal safety and their emotional security.

Given that, the changes that we have now seen recommended by the very short Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry have been surprising. Those of us who were involved in the joint standing committee process understand that whilst there were clear areas of agreement—which is clearly on the record in Hansard and in our tabled report—there were a range of issues about which there was no agreement in the committee. That was put on record in what we call recommendation 3, which said that these issues were not agreed and that there were individuals or groups of people in the committee who had these views, and we listed them. However, in no way could that be seen as an endorsement of every issue listed.

When the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee was again convened extraordinarily quickly—in fact, I have rarely seen the Senate act so quickly. It is amazing how fast this place can operate sometimes. It is not often, but when they really want to do it they can move. We had this legal and constitutional affairs committee put in place so quickly on the basis of the joint standing committee. It was actually said in the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee that, as these things had been in the joint standing committee, we were moving quickly—very quickly—to impose a new regime. In that new regime, it looked particularly at those magic words about humiliation and at the way that people can feel when their race is a reason for abuse, isolation or damage. We saw those magic words, and the core recommendation that has come to this parliament, in this very quickly drafted legislation, is that we remove those words and we replace them with others.

Also, in the other schedule there are a whole range of administrative changes, most of which the joint standing committee agreed on and most of which people in this place and in the wider community agreed on. But, to my disappointment, once again the government have selectively chosen what they will bring forward out of a committee report to legislation in this place.

The joint standing committee worked extremely hard to come up with a range of administrative changes that we think responded to the evidence not only of the Human Rights Commission itself but from people who had dealt with the Human Rights Commission and from people in the wider community who understood how the process should operate. But did the committee, did the parliament and did the government pick up all of the recommendations? No. They had to throw in a few things that were not even on the record during that period of consultation in January and February. That is what worries me. It is again raising expectations, raising the issues and then selectively coming forward with ideas, with recommendations, with which there is not agreement. While, as I said when I started, we will never get full agreement, it probably would be judicious to consider, when moving on such a sensitive piece of legislation, trying to get as much agreement as we can.

As everybody knows, and I will not go over the same information, we reject the change to 'harassment' in the definition of discrimination that has been put forward in this report. We think the words that are in in place—we think the understanding that can be better in place—are already available for the community. We have judicial precedent which points out how the act will work. We have a process now where we believe the various responsibilities of discrimination concerns and aspects of free speech are effectively balanced in this legislation.

In terms of the administrative reforms, the dissenting report is quite clear on the areas which were on record during the legal and constitutional affairs committee which we do not believe effectively fulfil the concerns about administration. There are a number of key issues there which have been covered by other speakers, which I will not go into.

I just want to add something about the process. This is a debate, and I never shy away from having debate and discussion both in this place and in the wider community, but I truly believe there has been a noxious environment created around this issue. The debate has been impacted by various statements by media and by conflicting statements put out there, which has led to more confusion in the community—and in fact not only confusion but fear, distrust and, in some cases, anger.

I am saddened that, if we are genuinely going to look at legislation, if we are genuinely going to gather together people who care about an issue and have them have the respect and the trust to exchange issues, this has not been a good process, because people in the community have been given mixed messages. I think that, no matter what happens out of this debate, the issues around the racial discrimination legislation will continue to hound and confuse.

One of the elements that were not picked up by the legal and constitutional affairs committee was a jointly agreed recommendation that talked about the need for more education programs and for more interaction between the commission and the wider community so that there would be clear understanding about what is in the legislation and how it would operate and to remind the community that this system was not put in place as a judicial system; this system was put in place as a mediation and conciliation system. It was a very clear process. In the racial discrimination process, the idea was that, when there was concern or feelings of hurt, people would have the opportunity to come together and to work together to come up with an agreement. This was offered and continues to be offered around issues of an apology and acknowledgement. That was the intent of the system. What we should be doing in this place, with the support of the community and with the support of the commission, is to remind the community that that was the intent. It was not set up to be judicial; it was set up for mediation, and that I think is something we have lost.

Whatever happens in this debate, we need to ensure that there is that community discussion and an awareness and education program and that people can have genuine trust that one thing that should bind us together is a rejection of any element of racial discrimination. That should be the answer that we come up with in this parliament.