STATEMENT: In an article in today’s Australian (‘Dreyfus slams bid to tweak race law’, 7 Feb 2014, page 27) Senator Brandis is said to have indicated he is considering amending the law governing the Australian Human Rights Commission. Changes being considered would remove the requirement for human rights commissioners to act collegially. Senator Brandis claim this is to avoid “group think”. The supposed check being introduced to stop abuse is that the AHRC president will gain new powers to rein in commissioners who strayed from the Commission’s responsibilities.

In OHPI’s view the move being considered move would cause significant damage to the Australian Human Rights Commission and to the protection of Human Rights in Australia. OHPI therefore strongly opposes such a change. The benefit of the current system is that the Commission functions holistically and can strike an appropriate balance between competing rights. The alternative being proposed would allow each commissioner to pursue their own area of rights even when it undermined other rights. Such internal conflict would undermine the Commission as a whole.

OHPI’s CEO has already raised strong concerns over misrepresentations by Tim Wilson, the newly appointed “Freedom Commissioner” (before he assumed the post) in relation to Art 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The concern was that in an effort to promote freedom of expression, Mr Wilson has omitted key qualifications to sections he cited and significantly misrepresented the legal position. We were, however, reassured that the requirement for Commissioners to act collegially would mitigate any such problems once he assume his office. It appears this may no longer be the way the Commission will function.

The proposed additional powers for the President will be ineffective as they won’t apply to a situation where a Commissioner, in the course of their duties, is undercutting another human right that is the responsibility of another Commissioner, and which in the circumstances should be given precedence.

We believe a move in the direction being considered would significantly undermine human rights in Australia and the effective working of the Australian Human Rights Commission. We urge the Attorney General to reconsider, and to take a holistic view of the issue. This move is in effect as damaging and ill thought out as earlier ideas of scrapping Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. We believe significant community consultation is needed on any changes to governing provisions of the Australian Human Rights Commission.