Interview: Staying Alive
Bad Boss: The Ultimate Piss Off
Industrial: Last Drinks
National Focus: Around the States
Politics: Radical Surgery
Education: The Price of Missing Out
Legal: If At First You Don't Succeed
History: Massive Attack
Culture: What's Right
Review: If He Should Fall
Poetry: If I Were a Rich Man
Satire: IMF Ensures Iraq Institutes Market Based Looting
The Locker Room
Bob Gould Sprays Gerard Henderson
War and Peace
A Strange Light
A Little History
Does It Have To Be?
If At First You Don't Succeed
Last month, with all eyes trained on Iraq, the federal Attorney General, Daryl Wiliams, introduced into parliament legislation that would - according to its preamble - "rename, refocus and restructure" - the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
'Refocus' and 'restructure' are apparently polite terms for a practice long outlawed by the catholic church, because buried none too deeply in the legislation's text is a provision which, according to human rights organisations, would bring an end to commission's independent role in litigation.
The Howard government hopes that in the future "the Commission may only intervene in [court] proceedings where the AG approves the intervention." The AG would not need any particular reason for saying no to the Commission, although the bill envisages the AG might say no where "a person" had already intervened on the Commonwealth's behalf. A person like...Daryl Williams!
HREOC has intervened in several high profile cases in recent years, and each time questioned whether the Australian government is breaching treaties which are the bedrock of the international human rights system. The commission did not persuade the court in the Tampa case, but they did succeed in others, including a case about the government's refusal to deliver lawyers' letters to asylum seekers in the Port Hedland detention centre.
More recently, the Commission went head to head with Mr Williams in the Family Court over the a transexual's right to have their marriage recognised. The Commission's arguments won the day. If the law was amended, would the AG let the Commission intervene against him? I'd rather be a snowball in hell.
But if the 'veto clause' just seems a sour-graped pay-back for the Commission's recent pesky interventions, think again. The government has tried it on before, way back in 1998. When the 1998 bill went to a government-dominated Senate Committee, some then moderate liberals - including Marise Payne and Helen Coonan - embarrassed Williams by slamming the veto clause (along with much else in the bill). Labor and the Democrats were against it too. It was never going to get through.
In 2003 nothing much has changed. Maybe the moderates are less moderate, but neither Labor nor the Democrats have indicated a approach. Which raises the question: why have another go?
Even if the veto power can't be passed, the bill sends a strong message. We're watching you. We don't forget.
On the other hand, for the people at HREOC there was probably never any confusion over what the government feels about them. Budget papers reveal that in 1995-6 HREOC's budget was $22 million (CPI adjusted). Now it's $11.1 million. Human rights are a great place to make savings.
Ashley Crossland is a former journalist and law lecturer
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