History of the Commission
The Australian Human Rights Commission (formerly known as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission) was established on 10 December 1986 (International Human Rights Day) as Australia’s national human rights watchdog.
With an expanded complaint handling role and a major focus on research and education, the Commission replaced the previous Human Rights Commission, which had operated essentially as a part-time body since 1981.
Three full-time Commissioners were appointed to the new organisation – a Human Rights Commissioner, Race Discrimination Commissioner and Sex Discrimination Commissioner – along with a part-time President.
Based in Sydney, the organisation was given statutory responsibilities under the following federal laws: the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (the RDA), the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (the SDA) and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986, which allows the Commission to receive complaints and monitor Australia’s performance under international human rights standards.
Over the next 21 years the Commission’s role and workload grew markedly. Following are some of the major organisational and legislative milestones.
The Privacy Act 1988 comes into force on 1 January. The position of Privacy Commissioner is created within the Commission.
Ten additional grounds of discrimination in employment, including age, are added under the International Labour Organisation Convention (ILO 111), increasing the number of, or grounds for, complaints to the Commission.
The RDA is amended to explicitly protect people against indirect discrimination.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 comes into force. The position of Disability Discrimination Commissioner is created within the Commission.
The position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner is created within the Commission. The Commissioner is given the role to monitor and report on the human rights situation of Indigenous Australians, as well as the operation of the Native Title Act.
The SDA is amended to make dismissal on the grounds of family responsibilities against the law and to provide protection against sexual harassment in a broader range of areas.
The Commission is given responsibility to monitor Australia’s performance under the newly-ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief
The High Court decides in the Brandy case that the Commission does not have the power to make legally binding determinations in complaints of unlawful discrimination.
The RDA is amended to make racial vilification against the law.
The Commission hosts the inaugural meeting of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions in Darwin. The APF Secretariat is based in the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The (then) Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission presents the Federal Attorney General with the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. The ground breaking ‘Bringing them home’ report made 54 recommendations.
The Commission begins an on-going technical co-operation program on human rights with China.
Commission releases the findings of its national Pregnancy and Work Inquiry, Pregnant and Productive: It's a right not a privilege to work while pregnant .
The Commission’s role of hearing complaints of unlawful discrimination is transferred to the Federal Court and the Federal Magistrates Service. Commissioners are given the role to appear as ‘amicus curiae’ (‘friend of the court’) in relevant cases before the Courts.
An Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner, separate from the Australian Human Rights Commission, is created.
The Commission releases A Last Resort?: The report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration which led to substantial changes to the way children are held in immigration detention.
The Age Discrimination Act 2004 comes into force – an outcome the Commission has been working towards since 1992.
The Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination is appointed.
Not for Service - Experiences of injustice and despair in mental health care in Australia, is released. This Commission report called all Australian governments to make mental health reform is a national priority and for real and sustained increases in overall funding for mental health care services.
The Commission releases the final paper in the Women, men, work and family project, It's about time: Women, men, work and family. The research is critical in securing a national paid parental leave scheme from 2012.
The Commission releases the report of the National Inquiry into Discrimination against People in Same-Sex Relationships: Financial and Work-Related Entitlements and Benefits.
The Same-Sex: Same Entitlements Report found that 58 federal laws denied same-sex couples and their children basic financial and work-related entitlements available to opposite-sex couples and their children. The report spearheaded changes in the law which removed discrimination against same-sex couples and their children.
20th anniversary of the Human Rights Medal and Awards.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivers the National Apology on behalf of the Government to members of the Stolen Generations. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma delivers the response to the National Apology on behalf of the Stolen Generations.
The Close the Gap Statement of Intent between the Australian Government, the Opposition and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is signed at Parliament House in Canberra marking a milestone in the long road towards achieving equality in health status and life expectancy for Indigenous Australians by the year 2030.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission changes its corporate identity to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Commission releases the Report of the Steering Committee for the creation of a new National Representative Body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, “Our future in our hands" - Creating a sustainable National Representative Body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Report leads to the eventual establishment of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples in May 2010.
The first full time Race Discrimination Commissioner and the first Age Discrimination Commissioner are appointed to the Commission.
The Commission releases its Report on the Review into the Treatment of Women at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
The Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards cones into force setting out new national standards for the design and construction of new buildings to ensure they are accessible for people with disability and members of our ageing population
The Commission launches the national Racism. It stops with me campaign to raise awareness of racism and the harm it causes.
The Commission releases its Report on the Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force.
First national Children’s Commissioner, Megan Mitchell, is appointed.