Skip to main content


Annual Report 1999-2000: President Statement

to 1999 - 2000 Annual Report Contents

Annual Report 1999 - 2000

Professor Alice Tay - President, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity CommissionStatement
from the President

of the Commission a changing environment

The year of this
report saw several significant changes and developments within the Commission.
Some were anticipated; some had been delayed; some were more welcome than
others all led to a full and active twelve month period.

For some time now
the Commission has been hindered by the slow progress of structural reform.
A wide-ranging review of the Commission which began under the former Labor
government and concluded under the Coalition government was necessitated
and precipitated by the finding of the High Court in the Brandy v HREOC,
23 February 1995 case that the Commission did not have the proper power
to make binding decisions in its hearing processes. The implications of
this finding have been the subject of extensive comment in earlier reports
to which the reader is referred for background information.

Legislative changes
affecting the Commission have been executed in two separate processes.
The vital outcome for the purpose of this report is that legislative amendment
required to formally transfer the Legislative changes affecting the Commission
have been hearing powers of the Commission to a more appropriate body
with the powers to make binding orders on matters of discrimination finally
passed through the Parliament last year. In October 1999 the Human Rights
Legislation Amendment Act No 1 (HRLAA1) received royal assent. The details
of this legislation and its impact on the Commission's processes are outlined
in the report from our Legal Section. The essential change affecting the
hearing processes has been the transfer of the power to hear complaints
of unlawful discrimination from the Commission to the Federal Court or
to the Federal Magistrates' Court. This change came into effect in April
of this year.

Far from stripping
the `teeth' of Commission effectiveness, its loss is freeing the Commission
to focus its resources and capacities on to conciliation, education and
inquiries for which the Commission is especially well-equipped and ready.

The Commission's
management structures have also changed significantly over the years.
In the early nineties, the Human Rights Commissioner was also the chief
executive of the organisation. From the mid to late nineties, management
was conducted on a collegiate basis shared between the President and the
Commissioners. With the passage of HRLAA1 through the Parliament, some
significant management changes have been put into effect, in particular:
the vesting of executive authority of the Commission in the office of
the President; the transfer of all complaint-handling powers from the
Race, Sex and Disability Discrimination Commissioners to the President
and the creation of the role of amicus curiae for all Commissioners
in court proceedings under the amending legislation that are before the
Federal Court.

Further changes are
anticipated. The Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill No 2 (HRLAA2)
proposes the creation of three Deputy Presidents of the Commission to
replace the current five specialist Commissioner functions - Race, Sex,
Social Justice, Human Rights and Disability. While this change may be
met with some public anxiety that areas of concern might take a less prominent
place in the Commission's agenda, a significant advantage will be to enable
new areas of concern, such as the rights of the child, to acquire greater
attention as required by circumstances.

At the time of writing,
the conclusion of the term of the Human Rights Commissioner is imminent
and the position of Disability Discrimination Commissioner and the Race
Discrimination Commissioner are unfilled. These responsibilities have
been assumed on an acting basis by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner
and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

HRLAA2 has been before
Parliament for some time now and it is still uncertain as to when these
structural changes may be expected.

Work of the
Commission - programs, policy and projects

As this reports attests,
HREOC's work is wide-ranging. In the past twelve months the Commission's
activities have ranged from public advocacy through the media to intensive
research on policy issues; from the conduct of national inquiries and
other specialist inquiries and open consultations to the investigation
and conciliation of individual complaints of discrimination; and from
the conduct of locally-based and directed information and education programs
to the implementation of complex technical assistance cooperation projects
in China, South Africa and elsewhere.

With the transfer
of the hearing functions to the Federal Court and the new Federal Magistrates'
Court, the Commission's Complaints and Legal Sections have worked closely
and cooperatively with these Courts to ensure a smooth transition of responsibility
and with legal service providers and other complaints-based bodies to
ensure the public is as well informed as possible of the new arrangements.

I have been delighted
to take up my new statutory role in complaints and I am very impressed
with the high levels of conciliated outcomes achieved by the Commission
through the efforts of dedicated staff.

One of the core responsibilities
of a national human rights institution is the promotion of human rights
principles through education and other information programs. The past
twelve months have seen a much greater emphasis placed on this area of
the Commission's work, through specific information initiatives with peak
community sector organisations and a creative, interactive Youth Challenge
program conducted in schools. They have opened up opportunities for the
Commission to work with State Equal Opportunity Commissions in presenting
the Youth Challenge program to school students. An audit of the Commission's
website, praised its excellence in content and as an educational resource.
The Commission is taking advantage of new electronic technology with the
establishment of listserve communications and other tools.

Both programs are
on-going, receiving encouraging, indeed enthusiastic responses. It has
also opened up opportunities for the Commission to work with State Equal
Opportunity Commissions in presenting the program to state educational
institutions. An audit of the Commission's website, indicated the need
to make some changes in presentation and navigation. These changes are
well underway and they will enable greater accessibility to even more
community and education sectors.

Within the portfolio
areas, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Susan Halliday has continued her
focus on pregnancy discrimination, working with employers, educators,
unions and the broader community. HREOC's last annual report provided
a detailed review of the Commissioner's national inquiry into pregnancy
and work, entitled Pregnant and Productive: it's a right not a privilege
to work while pregnant. At the time of writing, the Federal Government
had still not responded to the inquiry. Debate continues on pay equity
issues, in particular those related to industrial frameworks and casualisation.

Ms Halliday has worked
tirelessly in the area of education and advocacy, making positive use
of the many media, conference, speech delivery and other opportunities
to promote the messages of anti-discrimination, equity and fairness in
the work and other environments. Ms Halliday is also Acting Disability
Discrimination Commissioner. In this role she has been very well supported
by Mr Graeme Innes who was appointed Deputy Disability Discrimination
Commissioner. A major focus in the last twelve months has been on the
public inquiry of complaints lodged under the Disability Discrimination
Act. This highly successful process offers, where appropriate, a unique
opportunity for cross-industry, government and community interaction and
understanding resulting in outcomes that have a significant impact on
eliminating systemic discrimination. The other major focus this year has
been the conduct of an inquiry, at the request of the Attorney-General,
onThe Accessibility of E-commerce and New Technologies to Older People
and People with a Disability. I am delighted to report that a Working
Group, made up of representatives from community and industry groups,
and assisted by the Australian Bankers' Association, has been established
to progress the findings of the inquiry's report.

The 1999-2000 year
has once more seen Indigenous human rights issues at the forefront of
public debate. The debate has ranged from the meaning that should be given
to the document of reconciliation and the walk across the Sydney Harbour
Bridge, to international scrutiny of Australia's Indigenous affairs policies,
a renewal of the debate on the stolen generations, and mandatory sentencing
laws in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. There have also
been significant High Court and Federal Court decisions on native title,
and the disallowance of the first state/territory native title regime
by the Senate. The Commission as a body has been proud to support the
work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
and Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Bill Jonas as he tackles
these extremely complex and sensitive areas. The Social Justice Commissioner
has advocated a human rights position on these and other issues throughout
the year in performing his statutory obligations.

By the time this
report is tabled the five-year term of Human Rights Commissioner Chris
Sidoti will have concluded. The last year has possibly been the busiest
of Mr Sidoti's years with the Commission as he travelled throughout rural
and regional Australia conducting the National Inquiry into Regional and
Remote Education. This broad-ranging inquiry was thoroughly covered in
the media and its findings and processes supported by a detailed publications
program, the details of which can be found later in this report. Mr Sidoti
was also engaged in research and the provision of advice through reports
and other publications on a broad range of human rights issues particularly
those concerning the detention of unlawful arrivals. The Age Matters report
highlighted the need for comprehensive national age discrimination legislation
and made recommendations, among other suggestions, for Commonwealth compliance
with ILO 111 and other international standards.

In the Privacy area,
this past year saw the formal separation of the Office of the Privacy
Commissioner from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to
become an independent statutory office in its own right. Both offices
will continue to share corporate support services and will remain co-located
for the foreseeable future. The activities of the Office of the Privacy
Commissioner, Malcolm Crompton, are reported on separately later in this

Finally, in relation
to the Commission's output and productivity, while the public face of
the Commission is focused on its statutory appointees, I want to acknowledge
the dedication and professionalism of the Commission's staff without whom
the important and often difficult work of the organisation would not succeed.

Work of the Commission

The international
work of the Commission is conducted on three levels.

The Commission has
long been considered a model internationally for those countries contemplating
the establishment of a national institution for the protection and promotion
of human rights. It assists institutions set up processes for complaint
handling and conciliation proceedings as well as establish formats of
inquiries as a means of promoting human rights protection. The Commission
is increasingly asked to provide advice and support at regional and international
levels. The Australian Commission is the regional representative to the
International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions
which meets annually to assess the standing of applicant agencies.

The Commission has
hosted the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions since
its establishment in 1996, providing the staff for its three-person Secretariat,
corporate services and extensive in-kind support to this fledging organisation.
Funding for the Secretariat has been made available to the Commission
by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). The principal
activities of the Forum and, in particular, its regional workshops program
have been generously supported by the Office of the High Commissioner
for Human Rights. This report contains a detailed account of the work
of the Forum and its Secretariat, which, among other things, administers
AusAID funded technical assistance programs with regional institutions.

In addition to an
active involvement in the work of the regional body, HREOC, as the Australian
national human rights institution, conducts bilateral activities generally
as part of the Australian Government's development cooperation program
developed by AusAID. The most substantial of these is the Australia-China
Human Rights Technical Assistance Program which is an integral part of
the annual Dialogue on Human Rights with the People's Republic of China,
a significant technical assistance cooperation program at a regional and
international level.

Projects with other
national institutions have also been supported in South Africa and Indonesia.

As a national institution
the Commission is privileged to participate in formal UN processes. Dr
Jonas attended the meetings of the Committee on the Elimination of Racism
(CERD) in Geneva; Ms Halliday attended the Beijing Plus 5 meeting in New
York. The President, Human Rights Commissioner and other staff attended
the formal sessions of the Commission on Human Rights at which HREOC was
granted speaking rights.

The Commission has
received numerous overseas delegations and has provided training support
to visiting commission staff from Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Bangladesh,
Uganda and elsewhere. In my view our Australian Commission has a vitally
useful contribution to make to the developing expertise of national institutions
at a regional level and, where we are able to add value to these programs
without compromising our domestic responsibilities, we will endeavour
to share our expertise with those agencies in a less advantageous situation
struggling to found human rights bodies in very different environments.

The Future

The often lofty language
of human rights, founded as it is in international law, treaties and conventions,
can be a source of profound debate and often perceptual difference. The
source of human rights lies in the individual and the personal. Its manifestation
is in the relations that individuals have with each other, with communities
and groups, and with government, where human rights provide the measure
of a decent relationship and a recognition of the worth of all humans
and the societal. The Commission strives to assist Australians to an appreciation
of the commonality of universal human rights standards. We work towards
a national understanding of fairness and equality for all Australians.
On occasions, this brings us into conflict with one group or another governments
included. That is an unavoidable part of our work, but it is also a challenge.
We must acknowledge that while Australia enjoys a standard of living and
opportunity more advantageous than many other countries, we cannot pretend
that all Australians share these privileges. There is much work still
to be done.

The Commission faces
further change, and adaptation to that change, at a legislative and structural
level. Even a change of name is foreshadowed by legislation before Parliament.
New appointments will also be announced in the coming year. These are
major challenges for any organisation.

Change is one of
the constants for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Challenge
also. I look forward to a year of continuing achievement, engagement with
the Australian community and a year of working on behalf of Australians
for a better world for all.

updated 1 December 2001.