Response from Gillian Triggs re Responsibility for LGBTI Issues at the Australian Human Rights Commission

In July, I wrote about the need for a full-time Commissioner for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex (SOGII) Issues at the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)[i].

This was in part a response to the actions of Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, who, while serving as the AHRC spokesperson for SOGII issues, was arguing for the introduction of new rights to discriminate, including against LGBTI couples, as part of any reform to marriage laws[ii].

However, more broadly, it was a reflection of the overall need for the Commission to devote more resources to addressing issues of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia across Australian society.

As part of that post, I wrote to the President of the AHRC, Gillian Triggs, calling on her to reallocate responsibility for LGBTI issues to a Commissioner other than Mr Wilson. In September, I received the following response from Ms Triggs:

“21 September 2015

Dear Mr Lawrie

Thank you for your letter to me regarding the responsibility for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex (SOGII) Human Rights at the Commission.

The Australian Human Rights Commission comprises the President and 5 Commissioners. As President, I am responsible for all functions of the Commission. However, each Commissioner has a specific portfolio for which they are individually responsible.

I asked Tim Wilson to be the spokesperson on SOGII human rights. However, I and the other Commissioners also contribute public comment on the SOGII portfolio.

Under our statutory mandate at the Commission also has several functions that address the SOGII brief.

  1. We accept and try to resolve by conciliation individual complaints of discrimination and human rights under the four major pieces of legislation. No complaint under these acts can go to a court, unless and until the matter has been considered by the Commission.
  1. We intervene in court proceedings that involve human rights issues and we examine laws relating to certain rights and often propose improvements to those laws.
  1. We conduct national inquiries to bring special attention to issues of concern.
  1. We provide education about human rights to improve awareness, understanding and respect for rights in our community – in particular, the Commission is contributes to the inclusion of human rights education in the development of the National Schools Curriculum and works with the Safe Schools Coalition Australia.
  1. We conduct research and propose new policy and standards which promote the enjoyment of human rights.

The latest example of this is the Resilient individuals: sexual orientation, gender identity & Intersex rights national consultation report, a copy of which I have included in this letter.

The aim of the project was to consult stakeholders to identify key issues that can inform the Commission’s future work on SOGII issues. From June 2014 to January 2015 Cr Tim Wilson travelled nationally to consult lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender stakeholders in face to face meetings. In addition, over 1550 people participated in an online survey, and over 30 written submissions were received.

While each Commissioner is free to adopt an individual approach to the SOGII portfolio, the Australian Human Right Commission maintains a unified policy in ensuring human rights apply equally to LGBTI stakeholders.

I hope that this description of the contribution to SOGII matters is helpful.

Best wishes,

Gillian Triggs

President”

[NB Typographical errors in original]

In my view, this letter is not exactly a ringing endorsement of Mr Wilson, or the job that he is doing on LGBTI issues. While it notes the Resilient individuals process and report, led by Mr Wilson, it also makes clear that “I [Gillian Triggs] and the other Commissioners also contribute public comment on the SOGII portfolio” and that “the Australian Human Rights Commission maintains a unified policy in ensuring human rights apply equally to LGBTI stakeholders.”

Unfortunately, that doesn’t answer the question of whether Ms Triggs and the AHRC are unified in support of the introduction of new rights to discriminate as part of the implementation of marriage equality, something that Mr Wilson advocated for, yet again, last week in the Sydney Morning Herald.[iii]

Nor does it overcome the problem of the AHRC spokesperson on SOGII human rights prioritising the expansion of religious freedoms, including through convening his ‘religious freedom roundtable’ (with the first meeting to be held next Thursday, 5 November 2015), something which usually results in the diminution of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.[iv]

However, it appears that these issues aren’t going to be resolved any time soon and, in fact, they may only be conclusively resolved when either the Turnbull Liberal-National Government, or a subsequent Labor Government, finally creates and provides funding for a stand-alone LGBTI Commissioner within the AHRC. Based on the agenda currently being pursued by Mr Wilson, in my opinion that day can’t come soon enough.

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs

[i] “Why we need a full-time LGBTI Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission” July 12, 2015: https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/07/12/why-we-need-a-full-time-lgbti-commissioner-at-the-australian-human-rights-commission/

[ii] “Religious freedom and same-sex marriage need not be incompatible” The Australian, 6 July 2015 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/religious-freedom-and-same-sex-marriage-need-not-be-incompatible/story-e6frg6zo-1227429558684

[iii] “Religious freedom isn’t a trump card, but it does need to be a part of marriage equality debate” Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October, 2015 http://www.smh.com.au/comment/religious-freedom-isnt-a-trump-card-but-it-does-need-to-be-a-part-of-marriage-equality-debate-20151020-gkecyn.html

[iv] For more on this issue, see my “Submission on AHRC proposal to create a religious freedom roundtable” September 25, 2015: https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/09/25/submission-on-ahrc-proposal-to-create-a-religious-freedom-roundtable/

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