Reducing Rights 

One Man's Web > Politics and Ethics > Human Rights Commission

 Human rights head in battle on powers is an April 19 2003 article by Cynthia Banham in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The departing president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC )has vowed to "fight to the death" the Federal Government's attempts to curb the commission's influence in the court system.

In legislation before Parliament that would streamline the commission's structure, the Government has included a provision that would strip the commission of its independent right to intervene in court cases.

But the president, Professor Alice Tay, who finishes in May after five years in the job, claims the commission is united in its resistance to the clause.

The commission has been involved in 35 issues where it intervened since its establishment in the mid 80's. It has argued against the government on a number of occasions, including the Tampa case, when the government shirked its international obligations toward refugees with an absence of compassion which made world headlines.

Proposed new laws would mean HREOC would have to get the Attorney-General's permission before it could intervene in a case.

Professor Tay said that if the legislation got through Parliament, "I will be passing on to the next president a very much inferior set of responsibilities". She argues the laws would create a conflict of interest for the Government.

"The Commonwealth very often is a party to human rights action. How can it then be also the body who decides whether we as a human rights institution should get its approval?"

The Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, claims forcing the commission seek his permission would make sure "the intervention function is only exercised after the broader interest of the community have been taken into account". The claim is that this will make sure any HREOC actions will be in the best interests of the human rights of the community as a whole."

Victorian Attorney-General, Rob Hulls, is reported by Ms Banham as saying "all that will be taken into account are the interests of Daryl Williams. This is a gross and, in my view, improper political interference with our national human rights watchdog."

This is a serious issue for Australia especially under a Howard Government which has demonstrated a suspect attitude (at best) towards human rights.

Similar laws proposed in 1998 were withdrawn after a Senate committee - including Liberals - said the amendments threatened the commission's independence."

"The president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, Terry O'Gorman, said: "You can see a direct cause and effect between HREOC's intervention in Tampa and this particular move."

Our future freedoms may be vastly affected by this proposed change to the law.

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