The year in review
The Australian Human Rights Commission has been through a period of great change this financial year. Dedicated focus on governance enhancements and improving financial management has placed the Commission in a more positive financial position than it has been in recent years. Additional targeted government support has allowed us to make inroads into the human rights and discrimination complaint backlogs. The Commission’s longstanding advocacy for a range of significant legal and policy reforms has borne fruit, and our long-term advocacy for a reformed national framework for protecting human rights is under serious consideration by the Parliament. Institutional reforms to the appointment of Commissioners have now been embedded in legislation and policy guidance, in advance of the Commission’s deferred international accreditation hearing in October 2023 and the appointment of four new statutory officer holders in 2023.
The Commission started the year facing uncertainty about its sustainability. Long-term underfunding of the Commission, combined with financial management issues in previous years, had placed the institution in a precarious financial position, unable to afford to fund the core staffing needed to perform statutory functions to the standard expected by the Australian community. We had also seen an historic spike in complaints during the COVID-19 pandemic. This resulted in significant backlogs in complaints for discrimination and human rights matters.
The October budget of the new Government’s addressed these issues to some extent, by increasing the Commission’s core revenue to a level that enabled us to stabilise our existing staffing profile.
In this financial year, we received significantly fewer COVID-19 complaints than in the prior two year, and the overall number of complaints received has stabilised to a 'high normal' number of 2,562. Notably, in 2022-23, we finalised a high number of COVID-19 'legacy' complaints, which were not amenable to alternative dispute resolution. It is anticipated that with the small remaining number of COVID-19 complaints, and temporary staffing increases funded by government, we will make significant inroads into the backlog in the coming year.
The funding provided in the October budget, while welcome, still falls short of what the Commission requires in terms of staff to acquit our functions fully and independently. As a result, we must continue to invest in generating external revenue to support the work of our Commissioners and to deliver community awareness, education and outreach on human rights. Fully and sustainably resourcing the Commission will continue to be a topic of conversation with the Government into the foreseeable future.
In terms of new initiatives, the October budget provided project-specific funding for two major bodies of work that the Commission has long advocated for: implementation of the Respect@Work report and further development of a National Anti-Racism Framework.
Historic reforms to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) were introduced in December 2022, following the Respect@Work national inquiry. Most notably, organisations and businesses now have a positive duty to eliminate, as far as possible, unlawful behaviour in relation to discrimination on the ground of sex in a work context, sexual harassment in connection with work, sex-based harassment in connection with work, conduct creating a workplace environment that is hostile on the ground of sex, and related acts of victimisation.
The reforms to the Sex Discrimination Act have had an immediate impact on complaints received by the Commission, with a record number of sexual harassment and sex-based harassment complaints, particularly in the employment context.
The Commission has new co-regulatory powers attached to the positive duty that will commence in December 2023. Over this year, the Commission has been engaging with Government, the business sector, unions, community, and legal sectors to prepare guidance on the operation of the positive duty. The Respect@Work Information Service was established in 2023, as a national, trauma-informed service that provides information and referrals on sexual harassment and related matters.
The year also saw major reforms implemented following the Commission’s Set the Standard report, on respectful behaviour in federal parliamentary workplaces; and the further development of workplace culture partnerships with the Australian Defence Forces, Australian Border Force and Australian Federal Police. These reforms reflect the tireless advocacy of former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, who completed her seven-year term in April 2023.
Dedicated funding was also provided to the Commission for the further development of a National Anti-Racism Framework – a major focus of the Race Discrimination Commissioner, Chin Tan, whose term as Commissioner will conclude in October 2023. The proposal is for a long-term, central reference point to guide actions on anti-racism by government, NGOs, business, educators, health professionals, police, other justice authorities, civil society, and the community to provide an inter-governmental framework to eliminate racism in our community. This would be similar to existing national frameworks that prevent violence against women and protect children.
A progress report on community consultations for the proposed National Anti-Racism Framework was released in December 2022. Further consultations with ethnically-diverse communities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are currently underway, as well as research on existing government approaches to anti-racism and anti-Asian sentiment. These will be finalised in the coming financial year when the proposed National Anti-Racism Framework will be presented to the government.
This year also saw significant national focus on the need for reforms to Australia’s national system for protecting human rights. This has been a major focus of the Commission’s Free and Equal project led by me, as President – drawing together all aspects of the Commission’s statutory mandate. In March 2023, the Commission released a position paper A Human Rights Act for Australia detailing a model federal Human Rights Act. This is the key missing piece of legislative architecture in Australia to ensure that people’s human rights are fully considered in decision-making processes by Government. Its enactment would improve transparency and accountability for human rights and ensure that all people’s rights matter all of the time.
Immediately following the release of this position paper, the federal Attorney-General established an inquiry into whether Australia needs a new Human Rights Framework and whether such a framework should include a Human Rights Act. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights invited submission in relation to the Commission’s model as a basis for reform. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights-led inquiry is due to report in March 2024. The Commission is encouraged by the extremely high degree of support among submissions for our model to take this forward.
In a submission to this inquiry in June 2023, the Commission set out a comprehensive agenda for a new Human Rights Framework that includes the national Human Rights Act model, as well as measures to improve the effectiveness of federal discrimination laws, Parliamentary oversight on human rights issues, enhanced human rights education measures and a national indicator framework for human rights. The Commission looks forward to working with Government on this in 2024.
This financial year also saw important developments to protect the institutional integrity of the Commission. New legislation was passed in 2022 that requires Commissioner appointments be on the basis of publicly-advertised, merit-based selection processes. In 2023, guidelines were developed and released for public consultation. These will be finalised in September 2023.
These developments occurred in response to findings of an international review of the Commission’s compliance with international standards for robust, independent national human rights institutions (known as the Paris Principles). In April 2022, the accreditation committee of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) deferred considering the Commission’s ‘A status’ or downgrading it to ‘B status‘. Such a downgrade would have undermined Australia’s international reputation on human rights and created a significant diplomatic challenge for Australia.
Addressing GANHRI’s concerns has been a major priority for the Commission in this financial year. We are pleased at the priority given to this issue by the Attorney-General and the Government. The Commission will now re-appear for its accreditation review in October 2023.
In addition, our statutory Commissioners continued to lead important projects to better protect the human rights of people in Australia over the course of the past year.
The Age Discrimination Commissioner, the Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO, continued to push for reforms to prevent elder abuse and to harmonise Enduring Powers of Attorney across the country. She conducted innovative research with caring industries on age stereotyping, which showed powerfully how education and awareness raising can significantly shift attitudes towards older persons in care. Dr Patterson’s seven-year term as Commissioner ended in July 2023. Her term culminated with a national art exhibition, 100 Canberra, which is one of the largest inter-generational projects in Australia. The Commissioner partnered on this project, which saw 465 teenagers form friendships and paint portraits of 465 centenarians nation-wide, over several years.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Ms June Oscar AO, continued her focus on the human rights of Indigenous women and girls. The Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women's Voices) National Summit was held over three days from 9-11 May 2023, preceded by a one-day Youth Forum on 8 May 2023. The Summit brought together over 800 First Nations women delegates from across Australia, for decision-making, innovation and celebration. The Summit built on an online women’s safety forum conducted in November 2022, both contributing to the development of a new National Framework for Action on First Nations Gender Justice and Equality.
The Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Ben Gauntlett, concluded his term as Commissioner on 30 June 2023 to take up an appointment to the new National Anti-Corruption Commission. Dr Gauntlett led the Commission’s IncludeAbility project, which aims to increase access to meaningful employment opportunities for people with a disability. The project was funded by the Department of Social Services and the Paul Ramsay Foundation, with engagement from leading employers across Australia in place-based pilots. Preliminary results from the project are very encouraging, with the majority of participants securing ongoing employment at award wages. Stage 2 of the project is currently in development.
The National Children’s Commissioner, Ms Anne Hollonds, spotlighted significant problems with the nation’s juvenile justice, care and protection systems. In this reporting year, she commenced national consultations on juvenile justice, which will culminate in a National Children’s Report to Parliament in 2024. This work is supplemented by national consultations with marginalised and vulnerable children under a range of national frameworks (including the National Frameworks for Protecting Australia’s Children, National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Early Childhood Strategy) and in partnership with multiple government departments, led by the Department of Social Services. Insights from earlier consultations with vulnerable children were published in the 2022 Keeping kids safe and well – your voices report.
The Human Rights Commissioner, Ms Lorraine Finlay, led partnerships with banking and actuarial industries to develop guidance material on the use of artificial intelligence in decision making processes. She continued to advocate for the full and effective implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) in Australia. This would see effective oversight of places of detention to ensure people are treated appropriately – be they children in police watchhouses, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in their engagement with justice officials, persons with disability, older persons in secure facilities, or refugees and asylum seekers in immigration detention in Australia and in offshore facilities under the effective control of Australia. The Commissioner also conducted inspections of immigration detention facilities, noting the inappropriateness of the detention of people in Alternative Places of Detentions (APODs) for lengthy time periods.
As a team, the Commissioners and staff delivered a new and innovative annual Human Rights Awards event in December 2022. With a more accessible venue and format, the Awards were shared with over 500 people in person and online. They were a diverse and inclusive celebration of human rights heroes from communities across Australia with awards for young people and children, those working in communities, in the legal profession along with the overarching human rights medal winners.
This is the public facing work of the Commission. Behind the scenes, our leadership team and corporate service areas have worked long and hard on further tightening our financial management systems and on implementing new governance mechanisms to provide enhanced oversight on finances and budget, project management, organisational culture, and strategic engagement processes.
The next year will focus significantly on rebuilding key infrastructure to support the Commission’s work – from our website and internal systems, to a new office location in Sydney. All of these initiatives are part of a significant institutional renewal of the Commission; from its leadership, governance and systems, to building substantive change that better promotes human rights in legislation, policy and practice.
Each chapter in the Commission’s history is marked by a strong record of advocacy for human rights protections and law reform, and to the resolution of human rights disputes for thousands upon thousands of Australians, through effective alternative dispute resolution outside the court system.
I thank all of the staff and Commissioners for their dedicated contributions over this past financial year, and I look forward to achieving further significant protections of human rights for all in Australia in the year to come.
Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM FAAL FRSA FACLM(Hon)