Radio National Drive transcript

SUBJECT/S: Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act









SUBJECT/S: Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act

RN DRIVE HOST PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Committee made 22 recommendations, many aimed at improving the way the Human Rights Commission handles complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act. For more I’m joined by Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. Welcome back to RN Drive.

SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL MARK DREYFUS: Thanks for having me Patricia.

KARVELAS: Shortly after the report was tabled you, Tony Burke, Graham Perrett put out a news release saying the report found no basis to remove Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, but there’s not actually consensus on that particular issue, in fact there’s a range of options. Ian Goodenough as the Chair does thinks it should be changed. The ball is all in the government’s court.

DREYFUS: This is a consensus report Patricia. It’s a consensus report because, as you just said in your introduction, it makes 22 recommendations which are directed at improving the complaints process at the Human Rights Commission, and at better educating the community about the evils of racism. The Committee has made no recommendation at all to change the substantive law, to change Section 18C. I welcome…it is a victory for common sense. It is a victory for ethnic communities across Australia. It is a victory for a multicultural Australia. And I think it is time for the government to put an end to the extraordinary ideological warfare that we’ve had to endure, all driven from conflict within the Liberal Party. Time’s up. It’s over. It should be the case that the war on Section 18C is now over. ‘Dead, buried and cremated’ to coin a phrase.

KARVELAS: When he tabled the report, Ian Goodenough said that “mainstream Australians” need to be protected from reverse discrimination. What’s your take on that concept?

DREYFUS: That concept of reverse discrimination is a sort of bizarre, twisted view that utterly ignores the pernicious and dreadful effects of racial discrimination and hate speech in our community. I’m surprised that any Member of Parliament could even utter it. It’s something that’s come out of the farther reaches of right-wing politics in Australia. It shouldn’t form part of any real debate about what should be the laws against hate speech. We’re very clear in the Labor Party about this. We know the value of this law. We know the way in which it has worked to protect Australians, to draw a line against hate speech now for many years, for more than 20 years, and that’s where the line should stay. If we’re having any discussion at all we should be having a discussion about how to strengthen protections against racial hate speech and I am very pleased that this consensus report of a multi-party committee, of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, has declined to make any recommendations to the substantive law. That should be the end of it. I feel like we’ve been talking about this now for years and years and years. It’s driven by some bizarre, weird people - the far right of Australian politics, who can’t actually tell us what is the racial hate speech that they want to be free to speak.

KARVELAS: Okay, just on some substantive stuff in this report. Recommendations as they’re known - they’re not know as stuff but they’re stuff to me. The report recommends imposing time limits on the complaint process, giving the Human Rights Commission greater powers to terminate complaints earlier in the process, and also restricting access to the courts following the Commission’s termination of the complaint. Do you support all those measures?

DREYFUS: There’s a package here of procedural changes to the complaints process. Quite a number of them are drawn from a written submission that the Human Rights Commission itself made to this Committee, and clearly it’s for the government now to respond to the report and put together what the government thinks is an appropriate package to go forward with. A number of the recommendations are interlocking. Just on the time limit, one of your questions there and one of the recommendations - as Professor Gillian Triggs, the President of the Commission made clear in her evidence to this Parliamentary Committee, almost all complaints are resolved in a very timely fashion, within about four months. It is only in extreme cases that some have taken a longer period. But if it’s thought useful to have time limits then they should be considered.

KARVELAS: And restricting access to the courts? I think that’s restricting it by making it more expensive. Do you support that?

DREYFUS: Again, at present the Commission is the first port of call. It does not determine a complaint as such, it is set up under the law to engage in a compulsory conciliation process, and if that compulsory conciliation process is ended by the Commission without a result then the complainant can commence court proceedings. There’s actually a constitutional question bound up in making the Commission’s decision determinative of a complaint. That’s something that’s clearly going to have to be looked at. Graham Perrett, the Deputy Chair of this Committee mentioned that in his speech on tabling the report that there may be some constitutional issues. In the broad, if can I say, that there seemed to be a number of pretty practical suggestions to improve the process, to make it more timely, to make it clearer, to make it more understandable to members of the public. All of those are commendable aims and we look forward to the government’s response to these procedural changes.

KARVELAS: Another recommendation suggests greater government oversight of the Human Rights Commission. I think twice a year, that there would be some kind of process of oversight, meetings. What do you take that to mean? Is this something the Labor Party would support?

DREYFUS: It was actually parliamentary oversight. I’m in favour of all forms of parliamentary oversight. I think that’s the way we get accountability in our agencies. That’s the way we get accountability in government. The Human Rights Commission is already subject to oversight by the government. It’s answerable to a minister. This was a suggestion by the Parliamentary Joint Committee that it be given power to conduct some kind of twice-yearly reviews. That seems again to me, subject to working through exactly what its remit is going to be, that seems to me to be a pretty practical suggestion. I’m for strengthening human rights protections in this country. I’m for strengthening the role of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.

KARVELAS: Mark Dreyfus, many thanks for joining me tonight.

DREYFUS: It’s been a pleasure Patricia. Thank you.