Senate debates

Thursday, 15 February 2018


Australian Human Rights Commission Repeal (Duplication Removal) Bill 2018; Second Reading

11:49 am

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to present an explanatory memorandum relating to the bill and to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The intent of this Bill is to end the duplication between states & territories and the Commonwealth regarding human rights.

Efforts to address human rights concerns at a Commonwealth level have been activated by the external affairs power granted by the Constitution.

Conversely, states have the residual jurisdiction to address the manifest and increasing number of claims for human rights that are coming out of the international and globalist movement, particularly from the United Nations.

This Bill leaves untouched the relevant federal legislation to prevent race discrimination, age discrimination, sex discrimination and the like.

As was the case in 2000 via amendments made by the Howard Government, the Human Rights Commission will cease hearing complaints—due to its abolition. Instead, aggrieved plaintiffs will retain the right to take action under the relevant anti-discrimination regimes in the States and Territories.

In short, we must cease the increasingly aggressive agenda being advanced by so-called 'human rights commissions' and instead place the burden back on the plaintiff—as it should, under the rule of law—to establish their case before a court. It is always open to the government of the day to address the question of how the rights described in state, territory and federal legislation are resourced as a consequence of the repeal of the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 or the government could propose consequential amendments to provide for applications by aggrieved plaintiffs to be lodged directly in the Federal Court.

I have to observe that the rationale for creating commissions such as these might have at least had some logical basis for the political left in the historical context of when they began. However, these regimes fail to look at the state of civil society and the advance of technology. It may once have been considered necessary to give the imprimatur of a taxpayer-funded commission to remedy power imbalances. Technology now places recording and broadcasting devices in the hands of every Australian. Speech or conduct that is deemed offensive can be the subject of near automatic broadcast. A person offended—rightly or wrongly—by speech or behaviour can pull out their phone and not just record but also broadcast live, if they wish, what they are unhappy about. The court of public opinion immediately weighs in on the matter. Technology has overtaken the rationale for having powerful commissions to take 'affirmative action'. Everyone has a voice now. The days of big government should be numbered.

However, ideology prevents the political activist acting upon the evidence and accepting reality. Their political marketing model relies on two things.

Firstly, if emancipation of a minority is achieved, the brief celebration ends and these same advocates shift to advocacy for another group that allegedly needs emancipation. It is a continuous cycle of complaint and deconstruction of our culture, institutions and civil society.

Secondly, if emancipation of a minority is not achieved—and it could be argued the so-called solutions are so ill-conceived as to ensure it is not achieved—then the next tranche of solutions are increasingly radical, aggressive and destructive. This, too, breaks down civil society as advocates' frustration leads to increasing radicalisation.

In the context of radicalisation, it is apt to turn to a self-confessed radical who occupied the highest position in the Commission I am seeking to abolish.

There has been no clearer illustration of the misguided agenda of the Commission than its time under the tenure of controversial president Gillian Triggs, whose 5 year term concluded last year.

In one of her final interviews, former Attorney-General Roxon's appointee Ms Triggs told the ABC "dealing with human beings" made her "radicalised" in the job, adding, "I don't see myself as a warrior, I'm not a warrior at all. But as you meet the people … (and she lists some) … frankly, one becomes radicalised."

The most egregious examples of the radical agenda of the former Commissioner were the cases of the late and great Bill Leak and the QUT student cases. Both turned on the problematic question of the methods aimed to advance the status of indigenous Australians.

Both cases have been well publicised and would be well-known to most senators.

Mr Leak published a cartoon in The Australian newspaper raising questions about Aboriginal parental responsibility.

The students from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) fell within Ms Triggs' remit when Ms Cindy Prior lodged a complaint against them. One of their number was refused access to what the student did not know was an Aboriginal-only computer lab on campus. Ms Prior informed the student of this exclusivity whilst on duty at the lab. After leaving, he and his associates to take to social media to express their surprise at—as one person put it—affirmative action now seeking to address 'segregation with segregation'. For this alleged thought crime, Ms Triggs deployed the full force of her powers against the students by supporting Ms Prior. Ms Prior claimed she has been so traumatised by this incident that she had suffered personal harm. The case was, ultimately, dismissed by the court—but not before significant cost and distress for the students.

In her final week as Human Rights Commissioner, Ms Triggs claimed the present government was 'ideologically opposed to human rights' and that such rights were 'regressing on almost every front'. It is the type of hyperbole one expects from political activists—which Ms Triggs became—not from an independent commissioner who determines human rights matters.

It is passing strange that I must indeed submit a human rights compliance statement not only on this bill, but every bill I present—as does every other senator—yet Ms Triggs asserts that somehow human rights are going backward.

Ms Triggs cited as evidence for her concerns former Prime Minister Abbott's pre-2013 campaigning to repeal the Commission. This is true, and it is indeed the policy position of Australian Conservatives. I am enacting that policy position today, a position that it would seem has been abandoned by a Coalition government that—as Ms Triggs points out—campaigned to do so.

To say that abolishing the Commission equates to being ideologically opposed to human rights is a false dichotomy. Repealing state apparatus that claims to uphold human rights does not equate to opposing human rights. It equates, in the case of my bill today, to:

          I note that this same Gillian Triggs appeared at a fundraising event for the founder of the Australian Greens political party, Mr Bob Brown, during her tenure. Mr Andrew Bolt—another victim of the unbalanced section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act—opined at the time of this event:

          "She (Triggs) has turned this taxpayer-funded body into a soapbox for the Left and a witch-hunter to persecute conservatives, while misleading the Senate."

          Mr Bolt later recounted that:

              Perhaps, indeed, it was applause for accomplishing the mission set by the government and indeed the Attorney-General who appointed her, Ms Nicola Roxon. This is the same Attorney-General who caused a furore in November 2012 with proposals to consolidate federal anti-discrimination laws. In effect, Labor's and Ms Roxon's proposal would have expanded prohibitions of offence, insult or intimidation in the anti-discrimination space. She said, at the time, it was a 'very sensible middle course'—a refrain picked up in other contexts by former senator Xenophon. Yet her proposals triggered some 600 submissions to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee. Ms Roxon sought to consolidate the laws touched by my bill today into one Act, but thankfully civil society spoke up in outrage about the attack on free speech that it was. One wonders whether civil society would speak up—and be heard by a future government on this topic. Thankfully, due to the advocacy of civil society, the government retreated from its proposals.

              I move on to consider the actions of another Labor appointee, by former Attorney-General Dreyfus, namely Mr Tim Soutphommasane. The late Mr Leak, in particular, took umbrage to Mr Soutphommasane's approach to his role as Race Discrimination Commissioner. Last July, Mr Soutphommasane criticised those who sought to "re-open ideological culture wars" and derided those who suggest "cultural Marxism (is) taking over public institutions." He wrote not long before his appointment that "today's conservatives frequently endorse a form of destructive radicalism towards public institutions and civil society." One could not—in my view—give a better example of Newspeak than that statement. Conservatives are the ones upholding public institutions and civil society. It is the likes of leftists like Mr Soutphommasane that are doing the very thing he accuses conservatives of doing.

              A great many Australians hold conservative views and whilst open to question, when attacked by a supposedly impartial 'race discrimination commissioner', this calls into question—if I may borrow terms from the political left—his own conscious or unconscious bias.

              I note that Mr Soutphommasane once said "the arts must … consciously question the status quo." Evidently, the cartoons of the late Mr Leak are not therefore art, as he was questioning the new status quo of political correctness when he was attacked under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

              Mr Soutphommasane's tenure concludes in August. The Institute of Public Affairs has asserted that Mr Soutphommasane has been the source of 'incessant solicitation' of complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act.

              Yet the excesses of these commissions are not limited to the federal bodies. I will focus on two examples to illustrate. Before doing so, I invite colleagues to reflect that the current and future examples of state and territory regimes that I point to are not touched by this bill. They are regimes that are already aggressively pushing affirmative action. The state-federal duplication can be resolved by removing their aggressive federal counterparts, and leaving the virtue-signalling and thought-policing to the state and territory bodies.

              The first example is Tasmania. In that jurisdiction, two complaints illustrate the over-reach of anti-discrimination laws there. The cases of Archbishop Porteous and pastors Markham & Gee—both relating to sexuality discrimination complaints—are sobering examples. In both instances, adherents to the Catholic and Protestant expressions of Christianity were publicly expressing their views regarding marriage and sexuality according to their holy texts. Complaints were made against them, one of which I understand is ongoing. In the Porteous case, the complaint was withdrawn but I am very reliably informed, it was withdrawn purely for tactical purposes. The complaint was so ridiculous that it had the potential to undermine the 'Yes' campaign for redefining marriage, so the complainant was encouraged to withdraw. The advocates of these thought-policing regimes that suppress free speech shrug their shoulders and say no harm was done as the complaint was withdrawn. The Archbishop suffered public ridicule and reputational attack, and had to engage legal counsel, to defend a complaint that cost the complainant next to nothing.

              The second example is that proposed in the Northern Territory. Among other proposals, the government there suggests that the regime not require an actual complainant for the equivalent commission to initiate a complaint. Nor does the proposed regime require the continuing support of a complainant for the matter to continue. In both instances, the lack of an active complainant or plaintiff is an abuse of the rule of law. It suggests that the real target is not to redress personal damage or harm, but to police thought-crime. It is a frightening prospect.

              I have not even mentioned yet the regime in Victoria which is also excessive, but these two examples alone ought to illustrate that there is ample movement in the human rights space—albeit misguided, aggressive 'affirmative action'—to show that there is no need for a federal body for the same purpose.

              I urge the senate to end the duplication of these functions, restore the power of states and the moderating role of civil society by supporting this Bill.

              I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

              Leave granted; debate adjourned.