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Australian Human Rights Commission legislation amendment bill 2022

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The Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Amendment (Selection and Appointment) Bill 2022 will ensure appointments to the Australian Human Rights Commission are made through a merit-based and transparent process.

This Bill will contribute to the Government’s overarching integrity agenda and will support the Commission’s re‑accreditation as an ‘A’‑status National Human Rights Institution, which is essential to its institutional independence, legitimacy and international credibility.

The Bill legislates a merit-based and transparent appointments process for members of the Commission by amending relevant provisions of the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986, Age Discrimination Act 2004, Disability Discrimination Act 1992, Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. In addition, the Bill amends these Acts to clarify that the total term of appointment for the President and Commissioners is seven years, inclusive of any reappointment.

The Bill will also ensure consistency for President and Commissioner qualification requirements.

This Bill of course is part of our government’s commitment to integrity and transparency.

The bill implements the Government’s election commitment to restore integrity in appointment processes in the Commission. Through legislating transparent and merit-based selection processes, the Bill strengthens the Commission’s institutional independence and integrity, ensuring the Commission can undertake its statutory functions as an independent statutory body and engage in public debate impartially.

These amendments will give the Australian public confidence in the Commission, allowing any qualified Australian to put up their hand to represent their community.

The Commission’s international accreditation is at risk, which has obvious implications for Australia’s international reputation.

The Commission has been accredited as an ‘A’-status National Human Rights Institution since 1999 when accreditation of National Human Rights Institutions began.

However, in March 2022, the Sub-Committee on Accreditation of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions deferred the Commission’s re-accreditation as an ‘A’;-status National Human Rights Institution on the basis that the selection and appointment processes for Commissioners did not comply with the Paris Principles.

The Sub-Committee’s primary concern was three direct Commissioner appointments that were made to the Human Rights Commission without a merit-based and transparent selection process.

The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions accreditation process assesses a National Human Rights Institution’s compliance with internationally recognised standards. If Australia’s status is downgraded to ‘B’-status, the Commission’s capacity to engage in international forums would be significantly diminished.

For example, the United Human Rights Council and treaty body processes restrict access to ‘A’-status National Human Rights Institutions. Further, Australia would receive international scrutiny and criticism from across multilateral organisations and civil society.

The Commission’s re-accreditation has been deferred until October 2023 to provide Australia with an opportunity to address the concerns raised by the Sub‑Committee. Accordingly, this Bill responds to the concerns raised by the Sub‑Committee to ensure that the Commission can engage with international fora and continue its critical leadership role promoting the international rules-based system in our region.

The Bill amends existing appointments provisions for members of the Commission to require that, before making an appointment, the Minister must be satisfied that the selection of the appointee is the result of a merit‑based selection process that was publicly advertised.

These amendments will require vacancies in Commissioner positions or in the President position to be advertised nationally, such as through newspapers and government websites.

These legislative provisions will be supported by comprehensive policy guidelines to provide further guidance on what constitutes a merit-based selection process.

These amendments will remove the ability to appoint the President or Commissioners directly without a merit-based and publicly advertised selection process, and ensure that these positions are open to all qualified members of the community.

The Bill will insert amendments clarifying the term of appointment for the President and all Commissioners is for a maximum of seven years, including reappointments.

This addresses a concern of the Sub-Committee that the relevant Acts are silent on the number of times Commissioners can be reappointed, creating the possibility of unlimited tenure.

This amendment codifies existing practice whereby Commissioners are appointed for an initial five-year term, and then may be reappointed for one or two years to complete particular projects.

Finally, the Bill will ensure that the provisions setting out the qualification requirements for the President and Commissioners are consistent across the relevant Acts.

Unlike the other Commissioners, there are currently no qualification requirements for the President of the Commission. The Bill will insert a provision requiring the President to have appropriate qualifications, knowledge or experience to be appointed by the Minister, consistent with existing qualification provisions for the Commissioners.

However, and importantly, this will not change the distinct qualification requirements for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, which requires appointees to that position to have significant experience in the community life of First Nations people.

The effectiveness of our anti-discrimination system is dependent upon the proper functioning of, and support for, the Australian Human Rights Commission. An independent Human Rights Commission is fundamental to Australia’s human rights agenda – both internationally and domestically. This government strongly supports the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission and is committed to restoring integrity to the process of President and Commissioner appointments.

This Bill will support the Commission’s re-accreditation so it can continue to have independent participation rights at international fora, and maintain its international legitimacy and credibility. Most importantly, this Bill re‑affirms and supports the Government’s broad commitment to restoring integrity to government, as well as our commitments to the international rules-based order.

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