As pressure mounts to repeal parts of the Racial Discrimination Act, the Human Rights Commission has said its conciliation process has had a record rate of complaints being resolved in the last financial year.

AHRC president Gillian Triggs will again appear before the parliamentary inquiry investigating potential changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, where it is expected she will receive a grilling from Liberal Senator James Paterson on the infamous QUT case. Triggs had previously said she could not speak about the QUT case as it was still ongoing, but after legal advice she now says she will answer Paterson’s questions, save for confidential information like settlement offers. 

One aspect the committee will be asked to report on will be whether the Human Rights Commission’s process for dealing with complaints is efficient and effective, given it has been almost four years since QUT students were kicked out of an indigenous computer lab. However, in response to a question on notice from estimates published yesterday, the Human Rights Commission showed the QUT case was the exception rather than the rule.

In the last financial year, there were 2013 complaints (not just for 18C but across all of the AHRC’s remit), with 47% of those complaints resolved within three months and 82% resolved within six months. Just over half of these complaints (52%) were conciliated, 19% terminated by the commission, 17% withdrawn, and 9% discontinued because the complainant didn’t respond.

Of those that went into conciliation, a total of 76% of the complaints were resolved without ever getting to court. This was a record, according to the commission.

In terms of 18C, between October 2014 and October 2016, there were just 188 complaints, and in that time, 160 have been finalised, with just 26 including financial compensation.

The commission also attempted to dispel a myth perpetuated by conservative commentators that Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane had encouraged people to lodge complaints against The Australian cartoonist Bill Leak over his infamous August 2016 “Righto, what’s his name then?” cartoon. The commission said that he had been asked by a journalists whether the commission would take action against Leak over the cartoon, and he clarified that complaints had to be made:

“If there are Aboriginal Australians who have been racially offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated, they can lodge a complaint under the Racial Discrimination Act. Section 2 18D of the Act does protect, however, artistic expression and public comment, provided they were done reasonably and in good faith.”

The commission estimated that over the past three years, it had spent 31 hours giving evidence at estimates hearings.

The 18C inquiry hearing today has heard from groups including the Australian Law Reform Commission, GetUp, the media union MEAA, and the Attorney-General’s Department. Next week the committee will head to Darwin. 

Peter Fray

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