Our functions - Annual Report 2009-2010: Australian Human Rights Commission

Our functions

Legislation

The Commission exercises functions under the following Acts:

Australian Human Rights Commission Act

Establishes the Commission and outlines its powers and functions. It defines human rights by reference to the following international instruments:

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • Declaration on the Rights of the Child
  • Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons
  • Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons
  • Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief
  • Convention Concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation.

Racial Discrimination Act

Gives effect to Australia’s obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Its main aims are to:

  • promote equality before the law for all persons, regardless of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin
  • make discrimination on the basis of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, unlawful
  • provide protection against racial hatred.

Sex Discrimination Act

Gives effect to Australia’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and certain aspects of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 156.

Its main aims are to:

  • promote equality between men and women
  • eliminate discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status or pregnancy, and family responsibilities
  • eliminate sexual harassment at work, in educational institutions, in the provision of goods and services, accommodation and in the delivery of Commonwealth programs.

Disability Discrimination Act

Its objectives are to:

  • eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities as far as is possible
  • promote community acceptance of the principle that people with disabilities have the same fundamental rights as all members of the community
  • ensure as far as practicable that people with disabilities have the same rights to equality before the law as other people in the community.

Age Discrimination Act

Its objectives are to:

  • promote equality before the law for all persons regardless of their age
  • eliminate discrimination against persons on the ground of age in many areas of public life such as employment, education and the provision of services or facilities change negative stereotypes about older people.

The Commission

We exercise our functions under this federal legislation by:

  • investigating and conciliating complaints of discrimination or breaches of human rights under federal laws
  • developing an extensive and accessible website containing research, publications, resources and education programs for young people, teachers, community groups, business, media and the community at large
  • working with the media to raise and promote public awareness about important human rights issues
  • working with organisations and leaders in the community, government and business sectors to provide education on relevant human rights issues and to support them in their efforts to better protect and promote human rights
  • holding public inquiries and consultations to resolve a systemic human rights issue of national importance that we have identified
  • working closely with the federal government to provide independent advice regarding the development of laws, programs and policies that will better protect and promote human rights
  • publishing annual reports on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice and native title
  • making submissions to parliamentary and other inquiries in order to identify human rights issues which may arise in proposed or existing laws and policies
  • working in the legal system through education focused on legal professionals and by appearing as an intervener or as amicus curiae in cases that involve human rights
  • working with other national human rights institutions, particularly through the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions
  • working on human rights technical cooperation programs in China and Vietnam

The President, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and the Sex Discrimination Commissioner have additional responsibilities.

President

The President is the Chief Executive Officer of the Commission, responsible for its financial and administrative affairs. The President is also responsible for the complaint handling function of the Commission.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner prepares an annual report on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights of Indigenous peoples and undertakes social justice education and promotional activities.

This Commissioner also performs reporting functions under the Native Title Act 1993. These functions include preparing an annual report on the operation of the Act and its effect on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights of Indigenous peoples. In addition, the Commissioner reports, when requested by the Minister, on any other matter relating to the rights of Indigenous peoples under this Act.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner

The Fair Work Act 1996 gives the Sex Discrimination Commissioner the power to initiate and refer equal pay cases to the Fair Work Australia.

Amicus Curiae

Section 46PV of the Australian Human Rights Commission Act gives Commissioners an amicus curiae (‘friend of the court’) function. The role of an amicus curiae is to provide special assistance to a court in resolving issues raised by a case and to draw attention to aspects of the case that might otherwise have been overlooked.

Under this function, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, the Human Rights Commissioner, the Race Discrimination Commissioner and the Sex Discrimination Commissioner may seek the permission of the Federal Court, or Federal Magistrates Court, to assist the court as amicus curiae in the hearing of unlawful discrimination applications.

Relationship with the Minister

The Attorney-General, the Honourable Robert McClelland MP, is the Minister in Parliament responsible for the Commission. He has a number of powers under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act.

The most significant are:

  • to make, vary or revoke an arrangement with states or territories for the performance of functions relating to human rights or to discrimination in employment or occupation
  • to declare, after consultation with the states, an international instrument to be one relating to human rights and freedoms for the purposes of the Act
  • to establish an advisory committee (or committees) to advise the Commission in relation to the performance of its functions. The Commission will, at his request, report to him on Australia’s compliance with International Labour Organization Convention 111 and advise him on national policies relating to equality of opportunity and treatment in employment and occupation.