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Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (Preliminary Assessment Process) Bill 2017 - Second Reading Speech


This bill, the Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (Preliminary Assessment Process) Bill 2017, is a thinly veiled attack by One Nation on our Human Rights Commission. It is an attempt to tie it up in red tape so it becomes unworkable. As Senator Dodson clearly articulated, it strangles the capacity of the Human Rights Commission and it is a complete waste of the Senate's time.


I ask Senator Burston: have you actually read the Australian Human Rights Commission's annual report? If you had read this annual report you would know very clearly that, in 2015-16, the commission received 2,013 complaints and finalised 1,982 of them in the same year. Seventy-six per cent of those complaints were resolved through conciliation. Almost half of the complaints were finalised in three months, and 82 per cent were resolved within six months. So let us be clear: there are no major issues with the complaints procedures of the Human Rights Commission. If the senator would take the time to read this report before he wastes the Senate's time by bringing bills into this place that are a complete waste of the Senate's time, we would not have to be wasting time this morning debating such a ludicrous bill.


Let us be really clear. I have made it very clear that there are no issues with the complaints procedure of the Australian Human Rights Commission, but there are major issues with this bill and some serious questions for One Nation. Why won't Senator Burston be a little bit more honest and clear as to why One Nation are really bringing this bill before parliament? Are they deliberately trying to tie up the Australian Human Rights Commission in red tape so that then they can call for its abolition when the timeliness starts blowing out and cases cannot be resolved quickly? Are they going after the Australian Human Rights Commission because it stands up for and implements section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act? We know clearly that they do not want any limits when it comes to the hate speech that pours out of certain One Nation candidates, at least, and we are very aware of some of those remarks.


Some of those remarks of course have been absolutely disgusting and appalling for our Australian society. That is the kind of candidate that this party puts forward, and that leads to getting elected and bills coming before this place that are a complete abomination and a waste of time. Let us have a look at what some of those candidates have said. One said, very clearly, that gay communities use Nazi-style mind control to get people to support same-sex marriage. Another said that gays should be treated as medical patients whose 'abnormal' behaviour leads to 'abnormal crime'. And then there was one just today, a new One Nation candidate, Richard Eldridge. Let us look at his record:


… a real estate agent contesting an upper house seat in the South Metropolitan region of Perth … called Muslims "little sheet heads", derided gay relationships as "poo games" and advocated taking up arms against "extreme Muslims".


In one extraordinary rant about Indonesians in November 2013, Mr Eldridge—this is a One Nation candidate in the WA state election—said we should "Balibo" Indonesian journalists—'Balibo' Indonesian journalists— an apparent reference to the 1975 murder of the Balibo Five group of Australian journalists in Timor.


It is absolutely appalling. This is the level of candidate coming out of One Nation, and this is the party that the Liberal Party in Western Australia have done a preference deal with, preferencing them over their own coalition partners, the National Party, to help candidates like Richard Eldridge get elected. That just shows you the craziness that Australian politics has entered into and the kinds of outcomes that we end up getting, with bills like this being brought before the Senate today.


If we really wanted to think seriously about human rights in this country, we would actually read the report of Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, in this annual report, because she outlines very clearly the challenges for human rights in this country—and there are many challenges. There are challenges such as the proposition for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; racial harmony and community cohesion, which is a key challenge; a national plebiscite to amend the Marriage Act to recognise LGBTI relationships; laws to ensure Australia's national security while also not unduly encroaching on the rights of our citizens; durable settlement for asylum seekers and refugees seeking our protection; and efforts to enable Australia to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. Gender inequality continues to be a national concern, as was raised this morning at the International Women's Day breakfast. There are issues like the participation of older Australians in our workforce and the evolving National Disability Insurance Scheme. These are the human rights issues that are important for this country. That is a reason to come into this place and talk about human rights. If Senator Burston had the time to read this report, perhaps he would understand that, and perhaps he would understand why it is so important that we have an effective Australian Human Rights Commission.


The other bizarre part of all of this is the fact that there is already a joint committee inquiry going on that is examining, among other things, the complaints-handling procedures of the Australian Human Rights Commission. That report is going to be completed in a couple of weeks—28 February, I think it is. Why pre-empt the outcomes of that report? Why come into this place and put forward a bill before that current joint committee inquiry has done its work? It shows a disdain for our parliamentary systems. These are the systems that we have in place to ensure that we scrutinise and do our thorough work for the betterment of our democracy. What is the point in bringing this bill forward before the outcome of that report?


I think this bill makes clear One Nation's lack of understanding about human rights and about the Australian Human Rights Commission. I think, to be honest, that it exposes their immaturity and their inexperience regarding human rights. They are unable to frame meaningful legislation, so they resort to the kind of stunt politics of a fringe party, trying to make changes to something that they clearly do not understand. The outcome of course is politics—politics that so many Australians are getting sick of.


The Labor Party stand proudly on the side of human rights. In fact, 'Doc' Evatt was there at the beginning, in San Francisco, at the birth of the convention on human rights, with our United Nations charter. We also stand very proudly as being the party that introduced section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, something I know One Nation want to get rid of, because they do not want any restraints on being a bigot. You see, a bigot restrained will never suffer more than a victim shamed—never. And I do not think you, Senator Burston, will ever really know what that feels like.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Bernardi ): Address your remarks through the chair, thank you, Senator Singh.


Senator SINGH: Regardless of that, this constraining of those who seek those kinds of protections in our Racial Discrimination Act continues. In fact, this morning we had Christopher Pyne gagging Ms Burney in the other place when she tried to speak on a motion regarding native title during Closing the Gap week. This is the ludicrous nature that has got about not just One Nation but the Liberal Party as well. This shows clearly how politics rather than substance is trying to win out for these people.


As I said, the Labor Party is proud to have introduced section 18 C, and the Labor Party fights to retain it. It is a critical element of our antidiscrimination framework and it has served this country well for 20 years. It strengthens the rich fabric of Australia's successful multicultural community. It appropriately balances freedom of speech with the right of all Australians to live in dignity, free from bigotry and the destructive, divisive effects of racially motivated hate speech. Australians can and do use avenues that are open to them to call out racism when they see it. We use those rules to defend what is good and to show that hatred and hate speech is out. We do not accept excuses that racially motivated hate speech, racially motivated vilification, is an ordinary and acceptable part of living in our democracy. If Senator Burston thinks it is then we are on completely different sides of the coin. That is not the sort of society that I want to live in, and that is why I am proud to be part of a party that, for the last 20 years, has ensured that we had that level of law in our country that ensures that racially motivated hate speech is not an ordinary and acceptable part of living in our democracy.


To build a society where people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds feel able to fully participate and where people can live, work and play side by side, we need to defend our right to speak freely but fairly, just like we need to defend the laws that we have that provide for that, and the institutions that we have that provide for that—and that is exactly what the Australian Human Rights Commission does and does effectively and has done effectively year on end. So why are we here debating this bill? Why do we have a senator from a party bringing in this bill that makes no sense? It simply makes no sense. I also ask: why does Senator Burston not seem to have the support of the rest of his party? The usual practice when a party brings a bill into this place is that, in solidarity, it has its other senators back that senator up. Where are the rest of Senator Burston's team to back up this bill? I cannot see anyone else from One Nation on the speakers list today. I will always stand strongly with my Labor senators and colleagues on the right side of history, and that side of history is to ensure we live in a society in harmony.


Senator Burston would be aware that soon we will be celebrating Harmony Day. What is Harmony Day about? Harmony Day is about celebrating the rich tapestry that makes up Australia, our multicultural nation, our successful multicultural nation. But, as has been widely articulated by Senator Dodson, that is now all under threat. That is under threat because of the rise of this extreme Right agenda of those fringe parties of One Nation coming into this place with bills like this, putting up candidates that I described earlier such as Richard Eldridge, Michelle Meyers, Shan Ju Lin, Brian Brighton and David Archibald, who have all said appalling things in the Australian speech space, so much so that One Nation had to disendorse a couple of them. I call on One Nation today: are you going to disendorse Richard Eldridge? I call the Liberal Party in WA: are you really going to do a preference deal to help a candidate like this get elected, a candidate that has effectively said that Indonesian journalists should be murdered, that they should be 'Baliboed'? Outrageous! Are these really the kinds of politicians we want in Australian society? Is this really the kind of representation that we want in our community? What kinds of values is that putting out to the next generation, to say that it is okay to use that kind of language?


As Senator Dodson said, words do matter and words can hurt and they can discriminate. That is why the Australian Human Rights Commission has a special responsibility for the protection of human rights in this country—the protection of the vulnerable, the protection of the elderly, the protection of minorities, the protection of our first peoples, the protection of our Racial Discrimination Act. I think One Nation would prefer to live in Australia without such protections. I think One Nation would prefer to be able to be bigots whenever they choose to use hurtful language and whenever they choose to have such demeaning and awful effects on the victims that they go after. As I said, they will never know what that feels like because a bigot restrained will never suffer more than a victim shamed. Racism and bigotry, wherever expressed, are wrong. No-one has a right to be a bigot, particularly if they hurt someone.


That is why Labor proudly stands against this ludicrous bill. It is a complete waste of the Senate's time. It strangles the capacity of the Human Rights Commission, it pre-empts the findings of a current joint committee that is examining some of these very matters and it flies in the face of the detail in this Human Rights Commission annual report, which shows very clearly that the complaints system is effective and working completely fine. There is no other reason why One Nation has brought this about, other than to put forward their ongoing political agenda, which seems to be nothing more than a racist rant.