Summary publication

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Annual Report 2004-2005

The Annual Report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission for the period ending 30 June 2005 is produced pursuant to section 45 of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986. The report has been prepared in accordance with the requirements of section 70 of the Public Service Act 1999.

Statement from the President
The Hon. John von Doussa QC

John von Doussa QC, President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity CommissionThis Annual Report is a testament to the determination and commitment of the Commissioners and staff at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) to improve the enjoyment of human rights. Over the past year, their successes have included the publication of several groundbreaking reports and discussion papers on topics ranging from the balance between work and family, the experiences of Arab and Muslim Australians in the era of terrorism to the suffering of the mentally ill. The Social Justice Unit has distributed a community guide to the Social Justice Report to facilitate public awareness of the work of the Commission.
The Legal Section has intervened, or appeared as an amicus curiae, in several cases and has launched Federal Discrimination Law 2005, a handbook which gives a comprehensive, practical overview of Federal Court decisions concerning unlawful discrimination. The Complaint Handling Section exceeded its expected performance indicators by finalising 91% of complaints within 12 months and conciliating outcomes in 38% of them.

It has been my pleasure to welcome Tom Calma to the Commission, whose appointment as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner commenced on 12 July 2004. Commissioner Calma is an Aboriginal elder from the Kungarakan and Iwaidja tribes of the Northern Territory. His appointment coincided with the implementation of a new government policy for the delivery of services to Indigenous Australians. Part of this policy involved the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. As Commissioner Calma notes in this Report, HREOC is one of the few national mechanisms now able to independently and objectively monitor the activities of governments.

In addition to monitoring the new federal administrative arrangements for the provision of services to Indigenous Australians, Commissioner Calma has signalled his intention to focus on four issues: healthcare; Indigenous mental health; international recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, and; changing the focus of native title so that it is utilised to improve the economic and social conditions of Indigenous people. These are big tasks, and very important ones.

Since my appointment as President, it has also been my pleasure to work alongside Dr Sev Ozdowski, the Human Rights Commissioner and Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner. Dr Ozdowski’s term is due to expire in December 2005. I wish to acknowledge the significant and lasting impact he has had on human rights in Australia and, in particular, on the rights of children in immigration detention centres. After conducting a three-year Inquiry on the issue, Commissioner Ozdowski published the report of his findings entitled ‘A Last resort?’, which catalogued a litany of human rights violations against child asylum seekers and recommended that all children be immediately released from immigration detention. The Commissioner and his staff are entitled to share in the credit for the government’s decision to release all children from immigration detention centres in August 2005.

As Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Ozdowski oversaw the development of rigorous and comprehensive standards for enabling access to education, transport and public premises for people with disabilities. In conjunction with the Mental Health Council of Australia (MHCA) and the Brain and Mind Research Institute, he has engaged in nation-wide consultations on mental health and human rights issues. These consultations are informing the preparation of a comprehensive report by MHCA entitled ‘Not for Service’, which will be launched before his term expires. Its impact is likely to be considerable and I am confident that mental health will receive greater attention, and the mentally ill greater compassion, in the future.

I would also like to pay tribute to Commissioner Pru Goward. Her statement in this Report, and the chapter accompanying it, indicate the immense range and number of activities she and her unit have undertaken in the past year. The discussion paper Striking the Balance: Women, men, work and family and the public debate that followed its release has at last created widespread awareness of the fundamental equality issues that confront most Australian families every day.

Commissioner Goward’s role has also been extended to age discrimination. She has conducted a range of seminars and conferences to raise public awareness of the new Age Discrimination Act to all Australians, particularly to employers.

The work of the Commission is not, however, limited to domestic matters. As President, I have attended meetings of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions and the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions. I have spoken at international conferences on human rights and the rule of law. I have also been part of delegations to China to plan the technical cooperation program between China and Australia, which the Commission administers. Each Commissioner has also participated in international conferences and workshops relating to their field. Periodically, the Legal Section and Complaint Handling Section conduct regional training sessions on the development of human rights law and policy, and the investigation and conciliation of human rights complaints.

While the Commission devotes most of its resources to domestic matters, its international work should not be underrated. Political leaders in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom now consider that peace in their own countries depends upon the success of liberty and democracy in other lands. The international work of the Commission helps to facilitate this process because the partnerships we create help to open channels of communication through which we can share the knowledge and expertise we have gained over many years. International contacts also help to keep the Commission abreast of human rights developments, which we use in our work on domestic issues.

The importance of national human rights institutions has been recognised by both the Secretary- General of the United Nations and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. As a result of a Resolution promoted by Australia at the 61st session of the Commission on Human Rights, there will be greater recognition of accredited national institutions by the Commission and their right to participate in its deliberations will be progressively increased.

The Secretary-General’s proposal to reform the United Nations also recommends that greater emphasis be given by Member States and UN agencies to the promotion and protection of human rights. Pursuant to this goal, countries without independent national human rights institutions are being encouraged to establish them. Particular attention is being directed to the Pacific Region which, for obvious geographical reasons, falls within Australia’s sphere of influence. At present, both the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Pacific Islands Forum are advocating the establishment of a national human rights institution, or its equivalent, in each country that does not have one.

The establishment of an effective human rights mechanism is an integral element of good governance, but for some emerging island States it is not an easy task to accomplish. I think it is in our national interest to help facilitate this process, and the Commission has the knowledge and expertise necessary to make a meaningful contribution.

The Commission’s work stretches its budget to the limits. We have accomplished much, but there is still a great deal to be done and few resources with which to do it. We have worked hard to ensure we remain within our strict budget limits and actively review our expenditure.

In some respects, this Annual Report spans two remarkable years. In 2004-05, Australia celebrated not only the introduction of the Age Discrimination Act, but the 20th anniversary of the Sex Discrimination Act and the 30th anniversary of the Race Discrimination Act. These Acts have substantially contributed to the progress that we, as a nation, have made in realising the inalienable right to dignity, respect and equality of treatment.

It is clear, however, that gaping holes still exist. The entrenched deprivations suffered by Indigenous Australians are unacceptable and embarrassing given our status as a first world country. Our responsibility to alleviate their suffering only intensifies as the years pass. The threat of terrorism has led to a marked increase in the level of prejudice experienced by Arab and Muslim Australians. It has also had a negative impact on the treatment of refugees and newly-arrived immigrants. The mistreatment and neglect of the mentally ill, whether they are asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians or ordinary members of the public, is chronic and requires immediate attention. These are some of the challenges in the future and they are problems that the Commission will continue to address until solutions are found.

Australia is a stable and peaceful nation. Its success is premised upon its commitment to parliamentary democracy, multiculturalism, human rights and the rule of law. It concerns me greatly that, in the name of national security, multiculturalism and the enjoyment of fundamental human rights are coming under challenge.

In my view, multiculturalism is not the cause, nor even the catalyst, of the present security threat, just as commitment to human rights will not hamper our ability to protect ourselves. Human rights and multiculturalism are, in many ways, technical terms for very simple concepts: dignity, humanity, tolerance and respect. If fully realised, these values are likely to promote security, not undermine it, as they will encourage citizens to be loyal to the State and to each other. National security may require us to balance competing rights and interests but it should never require us to abrogate rights and freedoms that we have always considered to be fundamental. If we do so, we will abandon the very things that make this country great.

I commend this report to you.

John von Doussa QC

Addendum to Consultancy services (page 145)

The Commission uses a range of consultancy services where there is, for example, a need for rapid access to latest technology and experience in its application; lack of in-house resources; the need for independent study; or a need for a change agent or facilitator. Consultants are selected using processes in accordance with the Commonwealth procurement guidelines to ensure open and effective competition where practical. The Commissions consultancies have been identified using the Department of Finance and Administration’s document titled Guidance on identifying consultancies for annual report purposes.