The year in review
This Annual Report sets out the performance of the Australian Human Rights Commission in the 2018–19 financial year.
There have been three main trends in the Commission’s work over this period.
First, the Commission has undertaken a range of projects of national significance that have put the spotlight on emerging human rights challenges.
The human rights and technology conference kicked off the financial year, putting the spotlight on the emerging challenges to human rights from new technologies. How do we harness the potential of artificial intelligence while not entrenching existing disadvantage or replicating bias? How do we ensure a high-tech future is accessible to all? How do we effectively protect individuals in a rapidly evolving world, in which traditional forms of regulation are not agile or adaptive enough?
These and other questions were addressed at the conference as well as in an Issues Paper and White Paper released for public consultation by the Human Rights Commissioner. After an extensive public consultation phase, the Commission will move to releasing a discussion paper and draft reform proposals in late 2019 for the next phase of this project.
Throughout the year, the Social Justice Commissioner conducted consultations nationally with Indigenous women and girls through the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) project. The project, the first of its kind in twenty years, has achieved much public interest and elevated the voice of Indigenous women and girls. This was demonstrated by the focus of NAIDOC in July 2018 based on the theme, ‘Because of her, we can’.
The National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces (National Inquiry) has offered a platform for challenging this most intractable human rights problem.
Prevalence data released by the Commission provided detailed industry-level data and identified high levels of experiences of sexual harassment in workplaces.
The National Inquiry has held consultations across the country and engaged widely with business, employee organisations and the community to consider reforms to prevent and more effectively deal with harassment into the future. The final report of the National Inquiry will be released in 2019–20.
This year saw the introduction of Modern Slavery legislation by the Australian Government and the New South Wales Government. These laws ask large businesses to report annually on their efforts to identify and address modern slavery in their operations and supply chains. The Commission was involved in supporting a range of government processes which led to the introduction of these laws and continues to support both government and business on their implementation. The Commission has also built effective partnerships in order to achieve practical pathways for dealing with longstanding, difficult issues.
The National Children’s Commissioner has led the development of national ‘child safety principles’, as well as practical guidance for organisations to implement them.
These principles form a key response of all institutions across the community to the findings of the Royal Commission into institutional abuse of children. They aim to make institutions ‘child safe’ into the future—designed to prevent child abuse and other forms of harm from occurring within institutional settings, while also equipping institutions, parents and children better to identify and respond to abuse when it does occur.
The national child safety principles were endorsed by the Australian Government and state and territory governments in February 2019 and will play a key role in securing a positive future for children for generations to come.
The Age Discrimination Commissioner has undertaken a range of activities to advance the national response to elder abuse. This work builds on an earlier report by the Australian Law Reform Commission, with the Commissioner playing a key role in the finalisation of the ’National Plan on Elder Abuse’.
The Commission has issued several guidelines under discrimination laws to provide greater clarity and certainty to industry. This includes guidelines on ‘special measures’ under the Sex Discrimination Act, on the treatment of women in golf (a project conducted in partnership with Golf Australia) and the involvement of transgender people in sport (in partnership with several major sporting codes across Australia).
While the above activities have achieved high public attention, the Commission has continued to undertake its core, business-as-usual activities to protect human rights in Australia. This includes conciliating complaints under discrimination laws, handling human rights complaints, engaging with the courts, engaging with the Parliament in the scrutiny of legislation, and engaging in the international arena as Australia’s national human rights institution.
In 2018–19 the Commission resolved 1,010 complaints through conciliation. This represents successful dispute resolution for over 2,020 individuals and organisations and embodies the Commission’s commitment to assisting complainants and respondents to achieve cost effective, practical complaints outcomes that can provide significant benefits for the parties to the complaint as well as the community at large.
2019–20 is shaping up to be a stellar year for the Commission with the major projects discussed above reaching their final reporting stage.
In December 2018, I also launched a major new project, ‘Free and Equal—An Australian conversation on human rights’ (the Free and Equal project). This project aims to identify a national reform agenda for human rights for the next decade.
Almost everything the Commission does will feed into this project as we set out our vision for the full protection of human rights in Australia. In the next year the project will see the release of a series of discussion papers, the holding of technical workshops, a national conference and NGO Summit, as well as the release of a final report setting out the priorities for reform at the national level.
The Commission has already reshaped its strategic goals around the broader vision of the Free and Equal project, and our future work program will be heavily influenced by the priorities that are identified through the project in the coming year.
Finally, the terms of two of our Commissioners ended during this financial year. Dr Tim Soutphommasane’s five-year term as Race Discrimination Commissioner ended in 2018, with Mr Chin Tan commencing as Commissioner in late 2018. Mr Alastair McEwin resigned after almost three years as Disability Discrimination Commissioner in order to take a position as a Royal Commissioner into violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability, with Dr Ben Gauntlett commencing as Commissioner in early 2019.
I acknowledge and thank Tim and Alastair for their commitment to human rights and for their enthusiasm and actions as Commissioners. I also warmly welcome Chin and Ben to the Commission to carry forward our work in protecting and promoting the human rights of everyone, everywhere, everyday.
Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM