Questions on Notice arising from evidence given to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee's Reference on the Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Bill 2003

- HREOC's response, 8 May 2003


8 May 2003
Ms Louise Gell
Acting Secretary
Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee
Parliament House
CANBERRA ACT 2600

Dear Ms Gell,

Re: Questions on Notice arising from evidence given to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee's Reference on the Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Bill 2003

I refer to the Questions on Notice received by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission ("HREOC") after it gave evidence before the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee's Reference on the Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Bill 2003 ("AHRC Bill") on 29 April 2003 and provide the following responses.

1. Cuts to HREOC's budget

(a) Allowing for the changes to the Privacy Commissioner, what has been the real decrease in HREOC's budget over the life of the current Government?

The real decrease in HREOC's budget over the life of the current government is around $7.3 million in actual dollars. Note this figure excludes:

  • the transfer out of HREOC of the Privacy Commissioner in 2000-01;
  • the impact of supplementation for wage cost indexation, parameter adjustments and the like; and
  • one-off adjustments, from example when programs ceased.

HREOC's budget was decreased on an ongoing basis by around $6 million during the three years 1996-97 to 1998-99 as a result of government savings measures.

In 2000-2001 the budget was reduced by savings of $1,500,000 when HREOC's hearing function transferred to the Federal Court. However HREOC estimated that the cost of the hearing function at that time was around $628,000 per annum. This meant that HREOC had to find some $872,000 internally to cover the cost of its legal services function.

In addition to the specific savings measures, HREOC's budget has been reduced by at least 1% per annum as part of the efficiency dividend which is applied across government agencies.

The table below summarises the savings measures applied to HREOC during the term of the current government.

1. 1996-97 Budget

$

2% reduction in Running costs
(362,000)
Savings through increased efficiencies
(86,000)
Telecommunications savings
(12,000)
COPO/SPP efficiency dividend
(28,000)
Total
(488,000)

2. 1997-98 Budget & Additional estimates

Savings in running costs
(618,000)
Efficiency dividend
(158,000)
Telecommunications savings
(16,000)
Other minor variations
(24,000)
Total
(816,000)

3. 1998-99

Additional Specific savings
(4,300,000)
Efficiency dividend
(128,000)
Superannuation adjustment
(165,000)
Telecommunications savings
(5,000)
Total
(4,598,000)

4. 1999-00

 
Efficiency Dividend
(164,000)

5. 2000-01

 
Savings for transfer of hearing function to Federal Court
(1,500,000)
Adjustment for estimated costs of the hearing function
(628,000)
Estimated impact of Hearings funding transfer on HREOC
(872,000)
Efficiency dividend
(118,000)

6. 2001-02

 
Efficiency dividend
(118,000)

7. 2002-03

 
Efficiency Dividend
(117,000)

TOTAL SAVINGS 1996-97 TO 2002-03

(7,291,000)

(b) How has HREOC absorbed these cuts to its budget by the current Government?

As a consequence of the major budget cuts HREOC examined its activities and devised a new staffing structure to enable it to meet the new budget limits. This was a flatter structure with the abolition of all but two SES positions. Staffing numbers were reduced by 60 positions. Furthermore, during the relevant period, the positions of Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner were not filled when they became vacant.

The identification of staff eligible for redundancy was undertaken in consultation with staff and staff representatives. As HREOC needed to recoup close to $2 million on redundancy payments in 1997-98 financial year, the new structure was scheduled to take effect from 1 January 1998. Salaries saved assisted HREOC meet redundancy costs.

The most significant cuts affected the corporate and policy areas of HREOC. HREOC consulted widely with staff and their representatives during this process. All redundancies were voluntary.

As a result of the reduction in staff numbers, HREOC sub-leased its excess accommodation.

HREOC has also been assisted by developments in technology in achieving efficiencies.

Although all areas of HREOC were cut, preference was accorded to complaint handling, HREOC's core statutory function.

The Public Affairs Unit was maintained intact, in recognition of the critical role the media plays in the education and promotion of human rights.

There was also recognition that Privacy and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Unit required some extra consideration, although both areas were significantly reduced at the time.

The policy staff of each Commissioner was substantially reduced, with all Commissioners reprioritising their activities. HREOC's project budgets, and corporate services areas were all substantially reduced, and HREOC's Secretariat was abolished.

The complaints function was centralised in HREOC's Sydney office and HREOC subsequently closed all its regional offices with additional staffing reductions. Although HREOC was reluctant to close its regional offices, it considers that in practice the closures have had few ramifications for service delivery. Changes put in place as a result of the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Act No.1 1999 (Cth) allowed HREOC to streamline its complaint procedures assisted by the amendment that centralised complaint handling in the President.

Complaints from across the country are commonly settled by telephone negotiation or by exchange of letters, and a program of national visits to cities and country areas allows for face to face contact with complainants. The Commission could not have managed the process without a stringent examination of its processes and priorities and the full co-operation of all of its staff.

2. When did the Attorney-General last consult with HREOC about the changes proposed in this legislation?

The Attorney-General did not consult with HREOC about the changes proposed by the Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Bill 2003. The Commission was provided with a cabinet-in-confidence copy of the Bill shortly before it was introduced into the House of Representatives.

3. Court interventions

(a) Has the Commonwealth ever made submissions to a court opposing the intervention of HREOC? If so, can you detail those instances?

The Commonwealth has opposed an intervention by HREOC on one occasion. That was in relation to HREOC's application to intervene in the Western Australian coronial inquest into deaths of asylum seekers following the sinking of the Sumber Lestari. [1] HREOC was granted leave to intervene in the inquest.

(b) In how many cases has HREOC made submissions that differed materially from the Commonwealth's on a point of human rights law or principle? If so can you summarise these matters?

HREOC has made submissions that differed materially from those of the Commonwealth on a point of human rights law or principle in 16 matters in which the Commonwealth has been a party and HREOC has intervened.

Those matters are:

(i) Legitimate expectation that administrative decision makers will treat the rights of child as a primary consideration in decisions that affect children:
Minister of State for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs v Teoh (1995) 183 CLR 273.

(ii) "One child policy" of People's Republic of China as ground for seeking asylum:
C, LJ & Z v Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Unreported, O'Loughlin J, 30 March 1995 (and on appeal in Long Guan Chun, Li Liu Ying & Long Guan Juan v Minister for Immigration, Local Government & Ethnic Affairs (1996) 136 ALR 303).

(iii) Access to lawyers by asylum seekers in detention:
Wu Yu Fang & Ors v Minister for Immigration & Ethnic Affairs, FedCt(NT) DG4/95 (and on appeal in Wu Yu Fang v Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and Commonwealth of Australia (1996) 64 FCR 245.

(iv) Relocation of custodial mother and children away from non-custodial father:
In the matter of: B v B: Family Law Reform Act 1995 (1997) No.TV 1833 of 1996.

(v) Race power in s51(xxvi) of the Constitution:
Kartinyeri v The Commonwealth of Australia (1997) 152 ALR 540.

(vi) Definition of native title rights:
Western Australia v Ward (2002) 191 ALR 1.

(vii) Criminal deportation of person in immigration detention:
Ming Dung Luu v Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs [2001] FCA 1136 (and on appeal in Luu v Minister for Immigration Multicultural Affairs [2002] FCAFC 369).

(viii) Detention of persons aboard MV Tampa:
Victorian Council for Civil Liberties Incorporated & Vardalis v Minister for Immigration & Multicultural Affairs & Ors [2001] FCA 1297 (on appeal in Minister for Immigration & Multicultural Affairs & Ors v Vardalis & VGCCL [2001] FCA 1329 and special leave application to High Court of Australia in Vardalis v Minister for Immigration & Multicultural Affairs & Ors, M93/2001 (27 November 2001)).

(ix) Right of person with transsexual history to marry:
Attorney-General for the Commonwealth v Kevin and Jennifer [2003] FamCA 94.

(x) Guardianship of unaccompanied minors in immigration detention:
Peter Martizi and Simon Odhiambo v Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs [2002] FCAFC 194;

(xi) Concept of "abandonment" of native title:
Members of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community v State of Victoria & Ors (2002) 194 ALR 538;

(xii) Privative clause in Migration Act 1958:
NAAV v Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs [2002] FCAFC 228.

(xiii) Privative clause in Migration Act 1958:
S134/ 2002 v Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (2003) 195 ALR 1.

(xiv) Power to detain under s196 of Migration Act 1958:
Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs v VFAD [2002] FCAFC 390;

(xv) Power to detain under s196 of Migration Act 1958:
Al Masri v Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, [2003] FCAFC 70 (15 April 2003);

(xvi) Death of asylum seekers off Ashmore Reef:
Record of Investigation into Deaths of Nurjan Husseini and Fatimeh Husseini, Coroners Court of WA, Ref No 29/02 (13 December 2002).

(c) When, and in what context did HREOC request the use of the by-line Human Rights - everyone's responsibility, as mentioned in the Attorney-General's second reading speech? If so, is there correspondence about the matter and can that be made available to the Committee?

The Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill (No.2) 1999 proposed that HREOC's name be changed to the Human Rights and Responsibilities Commission.

In the context of that proposed name change, the President of HREOC wrote to the Attorney-General on 7 April 2000. It is not HREOC's practice to release correspondence between it and the Attorney-General without the express agreement of the Attorney-General. HREOC and the Attorney-General's Department have agreed, however, that the nature of the content of that correspondence may be passed on to the Committee. The correspondence expressed the view that:

  • HREOC did not support the name change to the Human Rights and Responsibilities Commission:
  • research undertaken on behalf of HREOC had suggested that if a change of name was to occur then HREOC should be renamed the Australian Human Rights Commission although the research did not find that a change of name was desirable;
  • HREOC's research revealed that the word "responsibility" implied for the general public that some have been "irresponsible" than it does a positive concept of mutual responsibility;
  • The President suggested that HREOC's name be changed to the Australian Human Rights Commission and that a "positioning line which describes in a succinct message what the organisation represents" could be added such as "fairness and equality for all Australians" or "human rights - everyone's responsibility"; and
  • HREOC expressly stated that it did not propose that the positioning line be legislatively based.

HREOC did not receive a response from the Attorney-General to its correspondence.

4. Abolition of specialist commissioners

(a) What would be the impact of the legislation on the profile of the Commissioners in the Australian community?

The amendments proposed by the AHRC Bill abolish the positions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Human Rights Commissioners, Race Discrimination Commissioner and Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

These specialised positions have served HREOC and the Australian community well by giving members of the Australian community with interests in those specialised areas a well-placed accountable representative who can vocalise and address specific concerns and promote relevant objectives and goals for that group. Any generalist work in the human rights area is already allowed for in the present structure with the President having a clear generalist role under the current legislation as does the one specialist position of Human Rights Commissioner.

The specialist Commissioner titles are attractive to the mass media and are invaluable in assisting HREOC promote human rights. Free access to the mass media is HREOC's main educative tool. "Accessibility" to the media is often a matter of "image" and specialist Commissioners have provided a clear and easily understood "image" for the media. They have built up over a number of years into an authoritative "brand" which is called upon many times a week by journalists from all spheres of the media for comment and background. This assists HREOC with its overall communication strategy which emphasises the use of the free mass media wherever appropriate.

The abolition of all of the specialisist positions and the creation of generalists Human Rights Commissioners (rather than the current one generalist Human Rights Commissioner) would deny to members of the Australian community with specific interests and needs, an easily identifiable and accessible representative with specific and relevant expertise. There would be confusion in the community as it would not be clear to the community which Human Rights Commissioner dealt with a specific area of responsibility and the ability to communicate and identify easily with a particular Commissioner would be lost. The difficult task of allocating certain areas of responsibility to the relevant generalist Human Rights Commissioners would fall to the President and it would not be at all evident to the community the basis upon which this would be done.

Furthermore, the existence of generalist Human Rights Commissioners would impede HREOC's educative function as the current specialised Commissioners' titles communicate effectively and clearly to the community the wide jurisdiction of HREOC.

The consequence of having three generalist Human Rights Commissioners is to remove from the human rights arena, positions that have a profile based upon an area of interest and responsibility that is immediately evident from their title. The Human Rights Commissioners would not be perceived by the Australian community as being accountable to achieving particular objectives or goals or having a specific role or responsibility. This could lead the Australian community to downgrading not only the work of HREOC but also the influence and achievements of the proposed generalist Human Rights Commissioners.

Please do not hesitate to contact HREOC if we can be of any further assistance in relation to this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Diana Temby
Executive Director


1. Record of Investigation into Deaths of Nurjan Husseini and Fatimeh Husseini, Coroners Court of WA, Ref No 29/02 (13 December 2002).

Last updated 22 May 2003.