The year in review
This Annual Report sets out the performance of the Australian Human Rights Commission in the 2017–18 financial year.
I commenced as President on 30 July 2017 following the completion of former President Gillian Triggs’ term on 28 July 2017. The National Children’s Commissioner was re-appointed for a further two years in March 2018. With four new commissioners appointed in the previous financial year, this has constituted a significant renewal of the Commission’s leadership. We await the appointment of a new Race Discrimination Commissioner in 2018 to provide our full complement of Commissioners to take us through the next few years.
A significant focus of my first year has been to further the relationships between Commissioners to ensure a collaborative, vibrant working culture as a Commission.
This past year has also seen a significant focus on implementing amendments to the handling of discrimination and human rights complaints that were introduced in April 2017. Of particular note, these amendments provided greater scope for the early termination of matters and also introduced the requirement that some complainants are now required to seek leave of the court to take their claims forward to the judicial stage.
These amendments have assisted the Commission to handle complaints expeditiously.
I am particularly proud of the excellence of the contribution provided by our Investigation and Conciliation Service and through the National Information Service. Our rigorous evaluation of complaint handling processes demonstrates exceptionally high rates of satisfaction with the professionalism of the service we provide. It is particularly pleasing that the results reflect satisfaction from people who have been in the midst of disputes—as both complainants and respondents.
A residual matter that remains to be addressed is the Commission’s complaints jurisdiction for employment complaints not otherwise covered by the federal discrimination Acts. Unlike our jurisdiction under the four discrimination Acts, complaints brought under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth) are unable to proceed to judicial determination in the event that they are not able to be resolved. This is for matters relating to religious belief, irrelevant criminal record, political opinion and other grounds. Instead, the Commission can only report to the federal Attorney-General on these matters with findings.
The Commission has urged reconsideration of these provisions so that they become regular complaints processes.
This past year has also seen the Commission playing a leadership role in driving change on key human rights issues.
The Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) project has commenced national consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls about their rights. The first dedicated consultation on these issues in 30 years has reinvigorated debate about the important role of women in Indigenous communities. The report of these consultations will be finalised in the next financial year.
The Change the course report on experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment in university settings has led to a significant re-appraisal of the systems and policies across all 39 Australian universities. The Commission is following up this work by conducting the next instalment of our national prevalence study on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, and a national inquiry into this issue that was launched by the Minister for Women in May 2018.
The Human Rights Commissioner played an important role in Australia ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture in December 2017, which will result in a more systematic approach to monitoring conditions in places of detention. The Commissioner has also launched a significant three-year project to consider the impact of new technologies on the enjoyment of human rights. This project will examine the use of artificial intelligence in decision-making processes, privacy and other human rights implications of big data, the potential for improved accessibility for people with a disability, among other issues. A range of business, education and government organisations have been confirmed as partners in this work, highlighting its importance across our society.
The Commission has also been making crucial contributions to ensuring safety and protection for vulnerable groups in Australia.
- The National Children’s Commissioner has commenced work on ensuring organisations are child safe, in the wake of the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Working with all states, territories and the federal government, new principles have been developed to protect children. Guidance and educational materials will be rolled out over the next year and form a key part of the response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations. The Commission is proud to be leading this work with its potential to achieve significant benefits for child safety into the long term
- The Age Discrimination Commissioner has made a substantial contribution to the design of new mechanisms to prevent elder abuse in our community. A national action plan, with a range of new protections, is likely to be finalised in the coming year. The Age Discrimination Commissioner will also commence research and other projects to advance this, following the allocation of new funding in the 2018–19 federal budget
- The Disability Discrimination Commissioner has conducted research into the protection from violence of people with a disability living in institutions. This research was released in mid-2018.
The Race Discrimination Commissioner has worked tirelessly to promote cultural diversity and inclusion in the workplace with the Leading for Change report. Activities under the National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy have also promoted youth leadership on anti-racism and better understanding within government of systemic discrimination issues.
I acknowledge the significant contribution to public debate made by the outgoing Race Discrimination Commissioner achieved over the five years of his term.
As we enter the next financial year, we join in global celebrations of 70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the UN on 10 December 1948.
The Declaration emerged out of one of the darkest periods in world history. It has been a clarion call for all people to be treated equally and with dignity the world over. Its words remain as relevant now as they were in 1948.
Article 1 of the Declaration reads:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
The Commission will continue to play its part in building a greater community understanding of human rights so that we can all enjoy a society that affords dignity and respect to all.
Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM