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Australian Human Rights Commission Bill.



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ATTORNEY-GENERAL THE HON DARYL WILLIAMS AM QC MP

NEWS RELEASE

27 March 2003 29/03

AUSTRALIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION BILL

The human rights of all Australians will be strengthened under a Bill introduced to Parliament today.

The Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Bill 2003 is the result of a detailed examination by the Government of the structure of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) and past efforts at reform.

The reforms will better equip the Commission to take on new areas of responsibility, such as age discrimination, and manage the increasing incidence of issues which cross human rights boundaries, such as matters relating to women with disabilities.

Under the Bill, HREOC will be renamed the Australian Human Rights Commission. The name change will focus attention on the need for our society to respect human rights and is consistent with other human rights institutions in the region.

A new executive structure will provide the Commission with greater flexibility to reach the entire community.

The Bill provides for three Human Rights Commissioners to replace the existing portfolio-specific commissioners. With the President, they will have the responsibility of protecting and promoting human rights for all Australians.

Education plays a vital role in maintaining and promoting human rights. These reforms will be used to emphasise the message that human rights are everyone’s responsibility.

An important part of the education process will continue to be the distribution of human rights information to all Australians, with a particular focus on preventing discriminatory behaviour rather than reacting after it has occurred.

The Government is proud that Australia has a human rights record that is among the best in the world and that our national human rights institution is recognised as a leader in our region.

These reforms will ensure that the new Australian Human Rights Commission is able to strengthen this reputation in the coming years.

I intend to refer the provisions of the Bill to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee to give all interested parties an opportunity to comment on the reforms.

Media Contact: Carina Tan-Van Baren (02) 6277 7300/ 0419 423 965 www.law.gov.au/ag

Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Bill 2003

Fact Sheet

Introduction

The protection afforded to all Australians under Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws will be maintained and enhanced under the changes proposed in this Bill. The Bill is the result of a detailed examination by the Government of the structure of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) and past efforts at reform.

Name of the Commission

The Bill will rename the Commission the ‘Australian Human Rights Commission’. This name change was proposed by the President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and is consistent with the naming of other human rights institutions in our region.

The Bill will also rename the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act the Australian Human Rights Commission Act.

Structure of executive

The new Australian Human Rights Commission will have an executive structure of a President and three Human Rights Commissioners. This new structure will strengthen the Commission’s ‘collegiate’ approach to its work. The President and three Commissioners will have a common responsibility to protect and promote human rights for all Australians

In addition to requirements for individual expertise, knowledge or experience, the President and Commissioners will be required to have the collective knowledge and expertise to cover the variety of important matters likely to come before the Commission.

The aim of the reforms is to provide a more flexible framework for the Commission to accommodate new areas of responsibility (such as the proposed age discrimination legislation) and to deal more effectively with issues that cut across existing portfolio boundaries (such as women with disabilities).

The few functions that are currently legislatively allocated to individual commissioners will be retained and will become functions of the Commission as a whole.

Commission’s educative role legislatively enhanced

The highest priority for the new Australian Human Rights Commission will be to educate individuals, businesses and governments about their responsibility to respect human rights. Education is the key to a society in which human rights are respected by all.

Education is already an important focus of the existing Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. This Bill supports the Commission’s approach to protecting and promoting the human rights of all Australians by giving greater legislative priority to education and the dissemination of information about human rights.

The new Commission’s by-line will be ‘Human Rights - everyone’s responsibility’. This was suggested by HREOC to make it clear that it is not only the Government or the Commission, but all of society, that has a responsibility to uphold the human rights of others.

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Complaint Handling and the new ‘Complaints Commissioners’

The President will be responsible for all complaint handling functions. In order to provide greater flexibility for managing this workload, the Attorney-General will be able to appoint legally qualified persons as ‘Complaints Commissioners’ on a part-time basis to assist the President. Complaints Commissioners will act in the place of the President for the purpose of handling complaints. However, these commissioners will not be ‘members’ of the Commission. Work will be allocated to Complaints Commissioners by the President.

Seeking leave to intervene in court proceedings

The new Commission will be able to seek leave to intervene in court proceedings that raise human rights issues on approval by the Attorney-General. The Bill lists broad criteria for the Attorney-General to consider in making this decision. This will ensure that the wider interests of the Australian community are taken into account in the exercise of the intervention function.

To ensure that no constitutional issues arise, where a federal Judge is appointed to the position of President the Attorney-General’s approval for seeking leave to intervene in court proceedings will not be required. In this case, the new Commission will notify the Attorney-General of its intention to seek leave to intervene and its reasons for doing so.

The Commission will continue to be able to assist the Federal Court as amicus curiae (or “friend of the court”) in proceedings arising under federal anti-discrimination legislation without approval from the Attorney-General.

Removal of the Commission’s power to recommend the payment of compensation and damages

The Commission will retain its power to make practical recommendations for action to remedy or reduce loss or damage suffered by a person as a result of an act or practice inconsistent with a person’s human rights or constituting discrimination. However, this power will no longer include the power to recommend the payment of compensation or damages. This will improve the balance between choices of remedies by encouraging parties to find practical and genuine solutions to their disputes rather than focussing on financial compensation. It will appropriately enhance the importance of non-financial remedies, such as apologies, which can often be more important in rectifying complaints than financial remedies.

Removal of the provisions for establishing Community Relations Council and advisory committees

The Bill will also provide for the removal of certain statutory consultative mechanisms which are no longer needed. The provision for the establishment of a Community Relations Council, to which no members have ever been appointed, will be removed. The provision for the establishment of advisory committees will also be repealed. The Commission will retain its power to work with and consult appropriate persons, governmental organisations and non-governmental organisations.