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HUMAN RIGHTS BILL THREATENS HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION'S INDEPENDENCE

Commission Commission – General

27 March 2003

HUMAN RIGHTS
BILL THREATENS HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION'S INDEPENDENCE

The Commonwealth
Government has today introduced into Parliament the Australian Human
Rights Commission Legislation Bill 2003
to amend the legislation under
which the Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission performs its
functions.

While the nature
of Commonwealth legislation is obviously a matter for the Federal Parliament,
the Commission does not support the bill which stands to have a detrimental
impact upon the work of the Commission.

The bill significantly
undermines the Commission's independence in the exercise of its "intervention
powers".

The Commission's
intervention powers allow the Commission, with the leave of the Court,
to present written and oral argument in legal proceedings involving human
rights and discrimination issues. The Commission has used those powers
in approximately 35 cases before Australian courts and tribunals and has
never been refused leave to intervene.

In a number of the
Commission's intervention cases, the Commonwealth has been a party to
the litigation, including in the Tampa litigation and in the recent Full
Family Court case regarding the rights of transgender people to marry.
The bill would require the Commission to obtain the Attorney-General's
consent prior to seeking leave to intervene in such Court proceedings.
In the Commission's view, it is inappropriate that a party to the litigation
should also have a "gatekeeper function" in relation to potential
interveners.

More fundamentally,
such a proposal is at odds with the Commission role as an independent
body, responsible for monitoring and promoting Australia's compliance
with its human rights obligations. For that reason, the Senate Legal and
Constitutional Committee recommended a similar provision be removed from
an earlier bill introduced by the Government. The Commission's submissions
to that Committee can be accessed at:

The report prepared
by the Committee can be accessed at:

The bill also alters
the structure of the Commission, to replace the identified portfolio Commissioners
(who are currently responsible for the areas of Human Rights, Sex Discrimination,
Race Discrimination, Disability Discrimination and the rights of Indigenous
people) with three "Human Rights Commissioners". Those three
Human Rights Commissioners are to have overlapping responsibilities, which
are not clearly identified. The Commission considers this change to be
unnecessary and unproductive. The current structure of the Commission
provides a strong educational and advocacy role for individual Commissioners
and has received significant community support since 1986.

The Commission notes
that the Commonwealth Government has made a number of recent statements
reaffirming its commitment to human rights. The Commission is hopeful
that similar sentiments will lead to a reconsideration of the provisions
in the bill.

Media contacts:

Jan Payne, Director Public Affairs - 02 9284 9791
Janine MacDonald - 02 9284 9880 or 0408 469 347

Last
updated 27 March 2003.