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Estimates: Questioning AG Brandis in L&CA Committee

Senator Wright questions the Attorney-General about the Review of the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services, the National Human Rights Action Plan and the KPMG report about funding for the Federal Court, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court.

Senator WRIGHT: I would like to ask some questions about the KPMG report about funding of the Federal Court, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court. The report has not yet been made public.

Senator Brandis: No.

Senator WRIGHT: Have any of the report's findings been implemented in the 2014 budget or in other policy measures?

Senator Brandis: No.

Senator WRIGHT: When will the report be publicly available?

Senator Brandis: I have not yet decided whether it will be released. The response to it is something to which I am giving consideration. It certainly would not be released before the response, if it is to be released at all. I am not saying it will not be, but that is a decision that has not yet been made.

Senator WRIGHT: What would be a rationale for keeping the report from the public?

Senator Brandis: It is not a question of keeping the report from the public, and I do not want to set any false hares running here either. I am not saying that it will not be released; I am merely saying that no such decision has yet been made.

Senator WRIGHT: I seem to remember having sat through estimates sessions in the past when you have been asking questions on this side of the bench and asking about the release of reports into courts and so on, so you would understand the arguments that the public interest—

Senator Brandis: Yes, I understand the arguments perfectly. I am just telling you that no such decision has yet been made.

Senator WRIGHT: Can I ask about the review of the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services, which is complete. Again, I will ask: when will the review report will be publicly available?

Senator Brandis: If it is to be released, obviously, that is not going to be before it is finished. Perhaps the officials might be able to help you more than I can with where we are with that.

Senator WRIGHT: I had understood it was complete, so maybe my information is not accurate.

Senator Brandis: It is well advanced, but I am not sure that the document I have is its ultimate iteration. Is it Mr Manning?

Mr Manning: No. Since last estimates, the draft report was distributed amongst states and territories and others who have consulted in relation to it, and the consultant is currently finalising it. As Jenny said, I think it is close to finalisation.

Senator WRIGHT: Minister, is there a commitment to releasing that review report publicly?

Senator Brandis: At this stage, no. I have not even read the report because, as Mr Manning says, it has not been finalised. You can hardly expect me to make a decision whether or not it is appropriate to be released when I have not yet read it.

Senator WRIGHT: I suppose you could make a decision on principle that it is the kind of report that would be publicly released— Senator Brandis: In principle I am favour of releasing these things, so I start from the presumption that they should be released unless there is a reason not to do so. But I obviously cannot arrive at a conclusion, following that process of reasoning, until I know what is in it.

Senator WRIGHT: Thank you. Can I turn now to the National Human Rights Action Plan. It is my understanding that this was developed following substantial consultation at the community, state and territory level and it features a range of initiatives designed to make sure Australia continues to meet its international human rights obligations. Does the action plan continue to form part of the current government's policy?

Senator Brandis: We are having a look at the whole human rights area. As you know, one of my main priorities in this portfolio when the government was elected was to revive the human rights debate—and I think we have done that. The appointment of Mr Wilson to the vacant position of Human Rights Commissioner with a particular focus on freedoms—which, as I have said in previous estimates, I think have been rather neglected by the commission—led to a very lively debate about human rights with a slightly different focus than had been the case hitherto. The debate about section 18C which we had earlier this afternoon—yet again—is a debate about human rights. It is a debate about where the right not to be vilified ends and the right not to be politically censored ends. I think there has been a lot of debate about human rights in Australia in the last eight months and it has been a richer debate than the rather grey, politically correct debate we have had in years gone by.

I make that point to emphasise that getting human rights onto the agenda is about a lot more than just having an action plan; it is actually about what you do to elevate human rights in the public consciousness. In fact, I was having a conversation with the Human Rights Commissioner only the other day and he said to me we have never in his lifetime had so much discussion in mainstream politics about what liberalism means as we have had in the last few months. That demonstrates that the human rights debate is really alive and well at the moment in a way it has not been before.

Senator WRIGHT: I am interested in the status of the action plan, notwithstanding what you have already said about the vociferous debate that is going on at the moment. Will it continue to form part of the current government's policy?

Senator Brandis: The document, in the form we inherited from the previous government, may not necessarily. But can I add another element to this, please. I have discussed this with Professor Triggs, and you may well wish to ask about this tomorrow. The government proposes to reform the Human Rights Commission, and that will require amendments to its act. Professor Triggs is very eager that that be done, and she has some views about ways in which the constitution of the commission, and the way in which it operates, can be improved. She and I have spoken about this a couple of times, including briefly this afternoon in fact. The point I am trying to make to you is that I do not want to let the cart get before the horse here. In the second half of this year we will be announcing significant reforms to the Human Rights Commission, and I think it is in the context of those reforms that we will be revisiting the human rights agenda.

Senator WRIGHT: Having listened to what you have said there, would I be correct in thinking that the department probably is not at the moment continuing to deliver initiatives under the plan?

Senator Brandis: That is a matter for them.

Senator WRIGHT: Or are their ongoing initiatives that are being delivered currently?

Mr Bowhuis: As the Attorney-General has articulated, the new government has a new agenda for human rights. So we would not be continuing with the action plan as formerly set out by the previous government. The new government would make its own decisions about what it wishes to commit to in the lead-up to the universal periodic review in 2015.

Senator WRIGHT: I am using the term 'initiatives contained in the plan'—they are not continuing to be delivered? Are there ongoing initiatives that will not have any further work done on them until that further planning is done?

Mr Bowhuis: Each initiative would be a question for the government to decide separately, but that framework of a national action plan was one of the previous government's initiatives that would not continue. But as issues come up, the new government will consider them and make a decision on them as it sees fit.

Senator Brandis: That is right. The new government has a much broader and richer human rights agenda than the old government, and I think the official reflects that in his answer.

Senator WRIGHT: Has there been any change in the funding allocated to the initiatives contained in the plan?

Mr Bowhuis: The initiatives span across the whole of government—everything from multicultural affairs to immigration to other matters—so that is a very difficult question for me to answer.

Senator WRIGHT: The initiatives administered by your department is my clarifying point there—you can take that on notice.

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