Page 3005 - Week 10 - Tuesday, 23 August 2005

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The human rights commission has statutory functions that will allow it, supposedly, to provide a mechanism for the resolution of health, disability and community service complaints, to provide education to the ACT community on the human rights commission, review mechanisms and services and provide select information about the operation of the Human Rights Act and related legislation, publish information and provide a reporting process to the government on the resolution of health, disability and community service complaints, in addition to human rights and discrimination issues in the ACT.

The commission will comprise a president and commissioners who will, according to the government’s approach here, in a collegiate fashion decide how best to carry out the functions of the commission. It is envisaged that the role of the president will be similar to that of the board of a company. The president will not investigate individual complaints. It is intended that commissioners will represent their commissions in their areas of expertise and retain their roles as specialists. There is some scepticism in the community and, indeed, by most people who will have some dealings with this new body. A colleague of mine from the public sector legal area stated that the view of the office he works in is that all this will mean is that there will be five more public servants driving home in executive cars provided by the government. Whether that is an unkind statement remains to be seen but obviously this new process is going to cost the territory a considerable amount of extra money.

The government has stated that the bill does not alter the way in which complaints will be dealt with, as the bill is based on existing legislation about complaints, but that the terms used are more modern, broader and more flexible. The government has also indicated that the human rights commission will have more powers to initiate its own investigations into matters that concern it. That is consistent with the Human Rights Act, but whether it is a good thing or not remains to be seen because it is indeed somewhat subjective. That may or may not be a problem. However, reports will be able to be made to entities and office holders that the commission thinks should receive them. That could either be quite positive or it could perhaps be shades of 1984. I note that the commission has initiated a report into Quamby. We were somewhat critical of the government in that regard. That may well have been a positive thing, but we wait to see what else it does.

We are concerned, as with most of the human rights legislation, about whether the average punter in Canberra is going to be any better off. This commission and the associated additions in the human rights area have led to an increase in the budget of about $2.5 million or $2.3 million—from $5 million up to a bit over $7 million. I am sure a lot of that will be spent in relation to this new mega commission and the various tasks it undertakes but I wonder whether it will help the punter in the ACT. Obviously there will be an extra workload as a result of this. I imagine that is why the government increased its budget from $5 million to $7 million. Will it generate any discernible benefits to the people of the ACT?

The human rights commission as it stands—the Human Rights Office—has already shown a propensity to investigate matters that it considers relevant. On occasions it has shown a bit of a propensity—and admittedly there are only about half a dozen matters which I know of directly because I have referred them without perhaps an optimum or desirable result—to not investigate matters that you would think would come under its

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