Labor’s decision to add another commissioner to the ranks of the Australian Human Rights Commission will not immediately give the commission relief from its funding struggles.
Just before the election was called, Attorney-General George Brandis appointed three human rights commissioners: Kay Patterson as age discrimination commissioner, Alastair McEwin as disability commissioner and Ed Santow as human rights commissioner — replacing Tim “Freedom Boy” Wilson.
Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs warned that the decision to appoint three commissioners could reduce the effectiveness of the commission because the HRC is facing $5 million in budget cuts, and a 2.5% efficiency dividend on top of the cuts. The appointment of a third commissioner would mean the commission would be short another $700,000 over the forward estimates.
Fewer staff employed to support the work of commissioners would mean that the commission would become “top-heavy” with seven commissioners and a president, Triggs says.
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On the weekend, Labor announced it would fund another commissioner dedicated to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex issues to the tune of $1.4 million. The LGBTI commissioner would be a champion of LGBTI rights in Australia, Labor’s Penny Wong and shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus announced at Rainbow Labor’s campaign launch in Melbourne on Saturday.
A proper process would be undertaken to appoint a person to the new position, Dreyfus says. Labor had been critical of Santow’s appointment to the Human Rights Commission, stating that his role could be part time as part of the president’s role, but it is understood that Labor would be unable to sack Santow under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act, and it will not seek to redirect Santow to undertake the role of LGBTI commissioner.
At the time, Dreyfus said that Santow’s appointment was “a backdoor $700,000 cut” to the commission.
Dreyfus told Crikey that the new LGBTI role was in addition to the existing commissioner roles, and Labor would work with the Human Rights Commission to ensure adequate funding for the organisation.
“Labor is providing $1.4 million in additional funding for the LGBTI commissioner over four years as a new statutory role in addition to existing commissioners. Labor is acutely aware of the funding issues faced by the Human Rights Commission, including the special efficiency dividend announced in this year’s budget. We will work with the Human Rights Commission to ensure they are sustainable and strong,” Dreyfus said.
Fringe groups, such as the Australian Christian Lobby, are already unhappy about the prospect of a dedicated LGBTI commissioner. ACL managing director Lyle Shelton said in a press release that the position would be a “rainbow cop” that would “have nothing to do apart from pursue spurious actions against Australians who wished to live out their conviction that marriage is between a man and a woman and that children’s gender is not fluid”.
Shelton wrongly claimed that there was no discrimination against same-sex couples in Australian law. Labor has not gone so far as to back removing religious exemptions from anti-discrimination law, as the Greens have proposed.
“We have no current plan to change the existing exemptions in the area,” Dreyfus said.
Labor has yet to announce whether it will commit funding to the gutted Safe Schools Coalition program and restore the material removed after the Coalition government’s review into the program. Wong said on Saturday that an announcement would be coming later in the election campaign.
“You would anticipate given our strong statements on this that Labor will continue to be very supportive of a program which counters bulling, tries to ensure that all schools are safe, but this is a long election campaign, and I’ve not doubt we will have more to say about this issue down the track.”