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Our Watchdogs Should Not Have To Fear Attack

03/05/2016 6:26 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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Daniel Munoz via Fairfax

The Human Rights Commission has just been through one of its most testing periods since it was established in its current form in 1986.

Under the Abbott-Turnbull government, it has been treated shamefully.

It is a testament to the incredible strength of character of its President, Professor Gillian Triggs, that the Human Rights Commission has survived intact and continues to hold the government to account without fear.

Soon after the election of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, it became clear senior ministers bore a bizarre ideological grudge against the Commission, which quickly manifested in grossly unjust and cowardly personal attacks against Professor Triggs.

The first insult was the unceremonious sacking of Graeme Innes as Disability Discrimination Commissioner, a position he had held for nearly a decade, to make room for the blatantly political appointment of Tim Wilson. Back then he was a prominent member of the right-wing think tank The Institute of Public Affairs. Now he is Liberal candidate for Goldstein.

The second attack came in the government's disgraceful response to the Commission's report on children in detention, which Prime Minister Tony Abbott and colleagues took as a personal affront to their ideologies rather than an impartial and thorough critique of the impact on children of sustained periods of detention. Instead of taking that report seriously, Abbott dismissed it as a political exercise, and attacked the professional integrity of those who had written it.

Then followed the disgusting treatment of Professor Triggs during Senate Estimates hearings in 2015 when she was forced to repel repeated attacks on her character by Liberal senators Ian McDonald and Barry O'Sullivan. This was after it became public that Senator Brandis had tried to induce Professor Triggs to resign from her role with another government appointment.

The malicious nature of these attacks on the President of the Human Rights Commission, for no more than doing her job with an integrity and professionalism that the Abbott-Turnbull Government finds threatening, led to the extraordinary decision by the Senate to censure Senator Brandis as being unfit to hold the office of the Attorney-General.

Last week, Labor made its first move in repairing the damage inflicted upon the Human Rights Commission in the past three years.

With Shadow Minister for Disability Reform Jenny Macklin, I announced that Labor would reinstate a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner so that thousands of vulnerable Australians once more had a dedicated voice to speak up for them. As a result, the Age Discrimination Commissioner would also return to a full-time role, reversing the situation that has existed since Mr Innes's sacking where both roles have been shared by one person.

In response, Senator Brandis announced the coalition would do the same some hours later, in another heartening example of the government responding to Labor's agenda. But he also attacked Labor for "abolishing" the role of Human Rights Commissioner.

This is incorrect. Under Labor's plan, the Human Rights Commissioner position would be ably fulfilled by the President as a part-time role.

This is an appropriate place for the position, given the Human Rights Commissioner has an overarching role not specific to any particular group and does not have particular legislation to oversee. Given its importance, the role is a natural fit for the President of the Commission.

Under the Rudd and Gillard governments, Catherine Branson ably fulfilled both roles, and subsequent Presidents could do the same. Under the Howard government, the Human Rights Commissioner role was shared with the Disability Discrimination Commissioner role for seven years. No concerns were raised then.

Only Labor will restore the Human Rights Commission to its rightful position as a body free of political interference, and treat it with the respect it deserves as a watchdog for the rights of all Australians. Commissioners should not have to fear personal attack when doing their job of holding the government to account.

Labor will treat the Human Rights Commission as it should be treated, and in fact encourage it to be a fierce critic of the government where necessary. This does not mean that we will always agree with what the Commission says, but we in Labor will take what they say seriously because we know that government is improved, not hampered, by informed criticism. Bodies such as the Commission are a vital part of the checks and balances on executive power. If it is cowed by fear of retribution or vicious personal attacks on its members, we are all the poorer.

Labor will ensure all roles at the Human Rights Commission are appropriately filled with the right people for those important jobs, and stand back and let the Commissioners do their job. If only the Abbott-Turnbull government could do the same.

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