The Australian Human Rights Commission has said much of the controversy over the QUT 18C case is the result of the university’s handling of it, rather than the processes involved in the commission investigating complaints made under the Racial Discrimination Act

In May 2013, three non-indigenous students were asked to leave an indigenous computer lab at QUT by then-staffer Cindy Prior. There were then half a dozen messages posted on Facebook group QUT Stalker Space about the incident. Prior complained to her supervisors, and QUT managed to get the posts taken down from Facebook. A year later, Prior made a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. It then took 15 months before the students themselves were notified in July 2015, and it was more than two years after the complaint before the case wound up in court. 

The Australian and other proponents for changing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act cite this case as a reason for why the act needs to be overhauled or completely repealed. Others who back retaining the “insult and offend” clauses in 18C have suggested the case demonstrates need to reform the administrative process for the AHRC in dealing with complaints made under the act.

On Friday, AHRC president Gillian Triggs for the first time provided a detailed timeline of the events around the Prior complaint to the time the court dismissed the case. Triggs had previously been reluctant to provide the commission’s side of the events given parts of the case were still before the court. However, Triggs acknowledged that given the amount of attention being paid to the case, and the fact that law could be changed as a result of it, it was important to state the commission’s side. Triggs told parliamentarians that Queensland University of Technology had “specifically and repeatedly” requested to the commission that it not inform the students about the case before private negotiations broke down. 

“The complaint was with the commission for 15 months. That is an exception time … and even a rare period. 98% [of complaints] are resolved within a year. In very unusual cases they may take longer,” Triggs said.

The private negotiations between Prior and QUT took 11 of those 15 months, Triggs said. She said although the commission had continually made requests to QUT and Prior to inform the students involved about the case, QUT said it wanted to manage the process of how the students were informed. Ultimately, when the students were informed and conciliation broke down, the AHRC terminated the conciliation process and Prior launched court action against the students.

While putting blame on the university for failing to notify the students earlier on, Triggs said she believed that the university acted in good faith by trying to resolve the dispute with Prior before dragging the students into the case.

The AHRC has the power to not proceed with conciliation over complaints made under 18C if it believes the complaints are frivolous, but one suggestion to avoid a QUT-style case in the future has been for the commission to be given power to prevent such cases from getting to court. But Triggs said administrative agencies should not have the power to “stop people having their day in court.”

Triggs said the AHRC had changed its policy and now sought written confirmation that all parties involved in complaints had been informed.

A lawyer for the university, Daniel Williams — appearing before the commission before Triggs’ appearance — indicated that it was Prior, rather than the university, who requested the students not be informed, and the university was simply looking out for the wellbeing of its students.

The committee is in Darwin today and is due to report back to Parliament next week.

Peter Fray

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