The protection of human rights always involves a balance between the reasonable right to free speech and protecting vulnerable people from threatening conduct.
Your rights in a nutshell.
The agency charged with this responsibility is the Australian Human Rights Commission. But the commission’s relationship with both the Government and substantial sections of the public has been strained since the appointment of former academic Gillian Triggs to head the commission in 2012.
Professor Triggs’ appointment came not long after well-known journalist Andrew Bolt was found to have breached section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act after he wrote articles which criticised the growing trend for people with some indigenous ancestry to claim the benefits of being Aboriginal.
Professor Triggs was appointed by the former Labor government, which had re-opened immigration detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, in 2012.
After her appointment, she said nothing about the condition of detainees, although there was widespread public criticism from refugee advocates of the Labor government’s policy at the time.
But a few months after the Coalition was elected in 2013, Professor Triggs commenced an inquiry into immigration detention.
In 2014, she released a very hostile report that alleged that the human rights of detainees were systematically violated at these centres. This report fuelled demands that offshore detention be abandoned – a demand that the Coalition Government refused to accept.
Government ministers subsequently called for Professor Triggs to step down from the presidency of the commission. They alleged that her report was politically motivated and that the decision not to conduct a review during the term of the previous Labor government was evidence of this. Professor Triggs refused to step down.
In 2013, three students from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) went into an empty office at the university, and tried to use computer equipment located there for student use.
However, an indigenous officer at the university forced them to leave, saying that the equipment was exclusively available for indigenous students. The three students then took to Facebook saying that they had been subjected to reverse discrimination.
The indigenous officer, Cynthia Prior, took the students to the Human Rights Commission, and then, with the commission’s apparent encouragement, to the Federal Court.
In November 2016 – three years after the matter began – the Federal Court ruled that the three students had no case to answer. However, the students had to meet legal costs that ran to tens of thousands of dollars, and two had already paid $5000 each to make the matters go away.
The students’ barrister, Tony Morris, QC, said the case should never have gone to court.
He told ABC News: “There is one person to blame for that, one person, and that’s Professor Triggs, the head of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
“She has a job to do under the anti-discrimination legislation and that is to inquire into every complaint that comes into her office.”
He added: “In this case, Triggs sat on the complaint for 14 months before these kids even learnt that they had a complaint.” He said Professor Triggs should have dismissed the matter, instead of encouraging the complainant to go to court. (ABC News, November 11, 2016)
Further controversy arose over a cartoon by the late Bill Leak, published in The Australian newspaper last year.
An Aboriginal woman took legal action against Leak and The Australian, alleging that the cartoon breached section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, but only after the Human Rights Commission had actively sought complaints.
Leak said he had been put through incredible stress, and as a result of the case, “my life has been thrown into utter chaos.” He added: “I’ve got News Corp backing me legally. But if I was a private citizen, this would have cost me an absolute fortune.” (ABC News, November 14, 2016). Bill Leak had a heart attack and died two months ago.
It is very clear that in each of the cases, the complaint process was the punishment.
The Coalition attempted to amend the Racial Discrimination Act, and to ensure that cases before the Human Rights Commission are dealt with quickly and fairly.
The Senate refused to amend section 18C of the act, but did vote to improve the procedural fairness of the commission’s processes.
Professor Triggs had one final gesture for her critics. Last month, she spoke at a fundraising event in Hobart for the Bob Brown Foundation, established by former Greens leader Bob Brown to conduct political campaigns around environmental issues.
After five divisive years as president of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Triggs’ term expires at the end of July this year.
This is an opportunity for the Federal Government to appoint an appropriately qualified person to this position, perhaps a judge, who can supply the wisdom, legal judgement and experience that Professor Triggs so obviously lacks.