Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

MOTIONS: Attorney-General - Censure

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (11:06): We know in this place that censure motions are rare. They are rare because only at very special times do people feel as though responsible ministers have lost the faith of the people in this parliament. In terms of the process, it is always difficult. I know that Senator Abetz in his contribution said that, if you went out into the wider area, you would find people who would actually be supporting what is happening with concern about the role of human rights, and particularly the role of the Human Rights Commissioner. He also said that you would find that people would be supporting the government in their process. It is always difficult to speak on behalf of the Australian people, but what I can say is that, over the last couple of weeks, there has been an amazing response from people across this country through techniques that I do not always watch-that is, letters to the editor, talkback radio and comments to parliamentarians, where people have been expressing concern about what they have been perceiving as an attack-a personal attack-on an office bearer rather than focusing on the issues about which there may well be concerns from the government.

This is not the first time that the work of the Human Rights Commission and individual commissioners, and indeed presidents, has-

Senator Ian Macdonald: Mr Acting Deputy President, I hate to interrupt Senator Moore, but can I raise a point of order. We now have had three attackers on this motion and one defender, if I can use those words. How can this be fair? We are talking about the Human Rights Commission and fairness.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Smith ): Excuse me, Senator Macdonald. What is your point of order?

Senator Ian Macdonald: I would have thought that it should have been one from this side speaking now rather than Senator Moore.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: There is no point of order, Senator Macdonald.

Senator Ian Macdonald: Mr Acting Deputy President, can you just explain the ruling, please.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Macdonald, there is no point of order.

Senator MOORE: In terms of the process, basically what we have seen is questioning-public questioning-about the way that this government and, in particular, the responsible minister-

Honourable senators interjecting-

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Moore has the call.

Senator Jacinta Collins: Could you remind Senator Macdonald, please-

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Excuse me. Senators making a point of order will rise in their seat.

Senator MOORE: It shows the interest people have in this discussion. But, in terms of the process, again I say that what we are talking about today in the Senate and what was discussed in other ways about the role of the government-in particular the Prime Minister-last week in the House is not something that has not been questioned and discussed in the wider community. I have been impressed by the way that people across this country have been expressing their concerns about what they perceive as not a questioning of a report, not a questioning about what has happened in the Human Rights Commission, but rather as quite a personal and strategic attack on the President of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Triggs, and also as raising questions about what is in fact the role and the job of the Human Rights Commission. This is something for which the Attorney-General is responsible as the first officer of the law in this country.

However, it is important to know that the Australian Human Rights Commission Act provides that the commission functions 'to inquire into any act or practice that may be inconsistent with or contrary to any human right', and it goes on to talk about the definition of human rights. But the process involves the Human Rights Commission as an independent agency, and commissioners working in that agency have the right-in fact, the responsibility-to provide an investigative report to government with recommendations. That process, as I said earlier, before one of Senator Macdonald's interjections, is something that has been in place for many years, many parliaments and many attorneys-general, and I know that through that process there have been issues with which people do not agree and have said that they do not agree. They have said in debates in this place that there are recommendations and processes that have taken place with which individuals or governments have not agreed.

What this particular censure motion says is that we believe that the role of the Attorney-General in this case has gone beyond a questioning and assessment of recommendations and information with which he does not agree. What has happened has been that there has been a direct, strategic attack on the role of Professor Triggs-in fact, impugning her integrity and her professionalism. This is not my position; this is the position that has been put forward by an unprecedented range of professionals and legal groups that have come forward to make statements about how they feel about the attacks and processes that have been in place in this place-in our parliament and in our government, which is attacking. As I think the senator from the Greens just said, it is reflecting more on all of us-on us as a parliament and an organisation in terms of the way we operate. In terms of the censure motion, what we are saying is that we believe that this attack has gone beyond just questioning and has gone into personal attack, and that does not reflect any worth on the Attorney-General or on this place.

What has happened is that the community has responded. I know that Senator Wong quoted from one letter. There were so many places from which Senator Wong could quote. When we look at the media coverage, there have been divergent views, and that is always what happens, but consistently there have been not just legal groups, such as the Australian Bar Association, not just previous commissioners and not just previous prime ministers-indeed, we have had comment from Malcolm Fraser a number of times on this issue. These are people who care about the system, who care about the process and who are knowledgeable and experienced in the way that this interaction between the Human Rights Commission and our parliament and our government should operate, which is to investigate aspects of our human rights. We take that seriously-as you know better than most, Mr Acting Deputy President Smith, from the fact that we now have a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights in this place. That has come over many years because of the respect and the concerns that we believe parliament should have on issues of human rights.

What has occurred in the public has been, I believe, a response to what they perceive as something which they know is wrong, which is attacking a person-an individual and a professional-rather than looking at the issues themselves. That has been across a range of institutions and groups who have been making that point. I have been surprised. I wish that issues around human rights and issues around equity were more openly discussed in the community. Only in the last week, I have attended a number of functions for a range of things, from lunar new year celebrations in communities to book launches to meeting with people just when they actually know who you are and want to talk about what is happening in parliament, and people were expressing their views on what has happened over the last couple of weeks. Also, I take the point raised by the Greens that this has not been just a recent attack; this has occurred over a period of time, but I am concentrating on this recent period of the release of the children in detention report. People are questioning why, instead of actually looking at the issues, the leaders of the government, including the Prime Minister and the Attorney, have been attacking the messenger rather than the report.

Indeed, we have seen in, I think, an unprecedented way in Senate estimates that the report did not seem to be the issue. In fact, the Chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee put on record that he had not read the report because he 'knew that it was partisan'. In that environment, the process is detracted from, and that is why there is a censure motion before the parliament. We believe the role has been impacted. We believe that the respect for and integrity of role and the way it should operate have been damaged.

It is rare that Senate estimates inquiries receive the amount of media that the legal and constitutional committee received the other day-for all the wrong reasons, instead of concentrating precisely on the issue, which was whether this report reflected human rights concerns. Believe me, as someone who has read that report, I believe it does, and I also believe that it raises questions across a number of governments and a number of parliaments when it comes to the way that the system operates and to the core impacts, as put forward by Professor Triggs, not just at the Senate estimates hearing but in public statements she has been forced to make because of allegations that have been made in the wider community and in the media about the performance of her role. Professor Triggs attempted to table a document numerous times the other day at Senate estimates to describe exactly what the process was.

This is a longstanding human rights issue and Professor Triggs has pointed out how long the commission has been involved in the area of children in detention. This report raises issues that are absolutely central to human rights and puts these issues on the agenda for the government of the day and for the parliament to consider, which is how the system operates. Should there be any difference of opinion about what is in the report, should there be any questions about that report, there are ways to deal with those in our system. In fact, one thing could be to have a special hearing of the human rights committee or something of that nature. But what has happened is an insidious amount of commentary and discussion not just around the report and the Human Rights Commission as an entity and in what it does but, more particularly, around the integrity and the professionalism of the president. There have been public statements about a lack of confidence in that person. We know, because it is set out, that there are only a certain number of circumstances in which a president of the Human Rights Commission can lose their position. None of those have arisen, but in the wider environment there have been questions, comments and statements that have led people who may or may not have intimate knowledge of the Human Rights Commission to feel as though there is something wrong, and Professor Triggs's name has been trawled through the public. That is wrong.

Under normal circumstances, what one would expect-what I would expect-is that the government of the day and the Attorney of the day would defend Professor Triggs and the commission. I would expect them to question things on which they may not be in agreement, and that has happened many times in the past. We have a litany of Parliamentary Library references to where, in the past, there have been differences of opinion between the government of the day and the Human Rights Commission of the day-and that goes on because it is a dynamic process. But, in this case, we believe it has gone a step beyond by personalising the dismay, personalising the distress and personalising the disagreement. It has come down to the government versus Professor Triggs, and that was never the intent of the legislation. It has never been the intent of the process. There should be an independent assessment of human rights issues prepared for the government and then discussion could occur. I doubt whether there has ever been a time when every recommendation of any human rights report has been accepted. I would love to be corrected on that, but I believe that has never happened. What should happen is a discussion about the issues of human rights concern and then an interaction on that. Never should it degenerate into any personal attack.

What we have now is a range of people in the legal profession with interest in this area who feel that they need to come forward publicly and defend the President of the Human Rights Commission. That is not a circumstance that focuses effectively on human rights issues. We should not be in any kind of personal battle over the integrity or the professionalism of an individual. We should be looking at the clarity of the issues around human rights.

As I have said a number of times, this is not peculiar to people who normally take interest in this area. When you look at the letters to the editor columns in the newspapers, you see that people are coming forward with their concerns about how they feel this debate has occurred. They believe, from what they have seen, what they have heard and what has been reported in the press, that there has not been a defence of the president's role or position. They believe that there has been an attack by the government on the Human Rights Commission president. Anyone who watched the Senate estimates hearing or read the Hansard would accept that there was extraordinary pressure put on the President of the Human Rights Commission and her staff at that hearing.

I do not pretend that Senate estimates is always a cuddly, happy place. I know that there is a dynamic debate, but we should always look at where debate carries on to an extent where there is undue pressure on someone who is there in their professional capacity. Having watched those images of that Senate estimates hearing later, I was actually distressed. In terms of the process-the way it was run and the way it was activated-I was concerned not just at the way the questions went, not just at the responses that were expected and not just in the way Professor Triggs was, I think, actually attacked in that Senate estimates hearing. What I reflected on, though, was how that exercise would be seen by people who do not work in this place; to see the 4 to five hours of personal questions that went on and also the way that answers were interrupted and the process continued I felt was ineffective and inappropriate.

At no time did the minister at the table move forward to stop the process. At no time did the minister at the table question what was happening, which I thought was very telling in terms of a vignette of the general debate that occurs. I have seen many ministers in Senate estimates over many Senate estimates and there is a time when that can occur. Whether that was a decision that the Attorney-General had to make not, I cannot speak for his position on that day. What I can say is that many people have actually said to me, personally and also through the media columns, that they felt that was a distressing experience. So, again, the process is one of the things that we believe is part of the background as to why this rare occurrence-the censure of a minister in this place-has occurred.

In terms of where we go: many people have asked, 'What are we going to do to respond to what has happened over the last couple of days?' This is not a party position; it is a question for what our parliament is going to do in looking at the role of the Human Rights Commission and also the president of that. What we need to do is to respond to the community and say, 'This is how we believe it should operate, this is what is important and this is how we expect the minister to behave in this process.' That is the background to having a censure motion.

There have been many arguments put forward as to motivation for this and whether it is an attempt to divert from the core issues. I do not know the answers to that. I do not think that anyone knows the answers to that. But what we must retain and what must happen out of any debate that occurs is a respect for the institution, a respect for its absolute independence to do a review of issues and to bring those forward-to look at issues of human rights and bring those forward to the government of the day-and to have the knowledge, if you are working in that system, that when you bring forward issues around human rights to any government that they will consider them effectively, they will respond effectively and they will not actually revert to attacking the messenger rather than the message.