POLITICS

Gillian Triggs Hits Back At Turnbull: 'Our Role Is Not A Court'

The Prime Minister has attacked the Human Rights Commission for its handling of 'race hate' cases.

07/11/2016 7:40 PM AEDT | Updated 07/11/2016 9:14 PM AEDT
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Triggs said there were a number of factors contributing to the drawn out case, involving QUT students.

Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs has hit back at Malcolm Turnbull after the Prime Minister attacked the commission for its handling of "race hate" cases on Monday.

Triggs said the commission receives about 20,000 complaints a year which are investigated, but it is not the commission's role to be the court.

The public battle between the federal government and Human Rights Commission comes after a drawn out "race hate" case, involving three Queensland University of Technology students, was dismissed by a Brisbane judge as it had "no reasonable prospect of success".

The case surrounded complaints made after a student was removed from a computer lab reserved for Indigenous students.

Speaking to The 7.30 Report on Monday night, Triggs said the case had a "level of substance" but it was not the commission's job to play the role of the court.

"The complaints were ones that attracted a certain measure of concern about the nature of the comments that were made. I won't repeat the language but it was worrying and troubling," Triggs told the program.

"The court came to a different view and we respect the view of the court."

On Monday night Triggs told Fairfax Turnbull's criticisms were "deeply misleading" in suggesting the commission had brought the case to the court.

Triggs said the Human Rights Commission investigates and attempts to conciliate complaints made using Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act -- which makes it illegal to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" someone because of their race or ethnicity.

"We're not there to second guess what a court will do. We're there because we must consider the complaint. We investigate it and try to conciliate it," Triggs told The 7.30 Report.

"In the course of the conciliation, we may well say to the parties, 'Look, this is not looking like a substantial matter'. That will often encourage the parties to withdraw.

"We couldn't make a judgement about what a court might do. Our role is not a court. We are there to stop matters going to the court."

What is 18c?
Section 18c of Australia's racial discrimination act (RDA) makes it illegal to commit an act that is reasonably likely to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" someone because of their race or ethnicity.

In his first task as Australia's first law officer, Attorney-General George Brandis proposed early in 2014 to remove a section that made it illegal to "hurt the feelings of others."

Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott outraged free speech advocates, including conservative commentator Andrew Bolt and the Institute of Public Affairs by insisting the proposal was "off the table - it is gone. It's disappeared."

In August, Malcolm Turnbull ruled out removing race hate speech as an offencesaying is government has higher priorities like budget repair.

However, Triggs said she could not confirm whether the Humans Rights Commission had advised the QUT students against taking the matter to court in this specific case.

"I don't know if they specifically advised. That's not our role. Our role is to try to bring the parties together," Triggs said.

While the Human Rights Commission does not function as a court, it does have the power to intervene in court proceedings by providing "independent legal advice", according to their statutory responsibilities outlined on their website. However, this requires the approval of the Attorney General and did not occur in this particular case.

While most complaints are resolved within about four months, the President of the Human Rights Commission said the case involving the QUT students lasted for about 14 months.

"For 12 of those months we believed in good faith we were going to get a conciliation," Triggs said.

"I think this one was difficult because the parties took different points of view. There were a number of students that had said different things. So the issues in relation to each of them was different.

"There were complaints about not only the university but the university staff. Some students had gone away on holidays and were difficult to connect with and so on. That was why it took much longer than usual."

What the court was saying, what the judge was saying to the Human Rights Commission is, 'You've been wasting the court's time. You've been wasting government money'.Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

Earlier on Monday, Turnbull said the Commission should "urgently review" the way it reviews "race hate" cases.

"I think the Human Rights Commission has done a great deal of harm to its credibility by bringing the case against the Queensland students," Turnbull told ABC radio.

"To have a case like that which will have involved the expenditure of considerable Commonwealth money, taxpayers' money, considerable money on behalf of the students, imposed enormous stress on them, and have it chucked out, struck out as having no reasonable prospects of success.

"What the court was saying, what the judge was saying to the Human Rights Commission is, 'You've been wasting the court's time. You've been wasting government money'."

Turnbull said there was "considerable merit" in formally examining the debate around Section 18C, and in particular, removing the words "insult" and "offend" -- which a number of Coalition MPs want removed.

"I have sympathy for this argument ... there is a view that the test, the bar is set is too low," he said.

"Proscribing conduct which insults and offends is too much of a restriction on free speech."

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