State agencies gone rogue

By Andrew L. Urban.

It is welcome that reforms are now (November 15, 2016) planned for both the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC); perhaps they will be reformed to be more acceptable in and more in the spirit of a democracy.

The protection of its citizens from hurt and unfair treatment is arguably the primary responsibility of states. Instruments of the state are expected to safeguard our civil rights and protect us from illegal acts of others. Surely these are incontestable facts. Yet in Australia, two of the most powerful instruments of the state – the AHRC and ICAC have been seen to act in contravention of these principles, actively harming citizens who were unable to protect themselves, even though innocent.

Those citizens targeted by AHRC or ICAC do not have the protection of the law (even if they have the money): these agencies ARE the law.

The AHRC entertained a complaint of racial discrimination against students at QUT which was obviously unsustainable (now dismissed by the court), denied the students natural justice by failing to inform them of the complaint and participated in the withdrawal of complaints against some of them in exchange for $5,000 each. Secretly. The AHRC has the power to dismiss complaints that are so obviously without merit as was that complaint.

It should have also exercised such discretion when it received a complaint – one complaint, now also withdrawn – that a cartoon by Bill Leak in The Australian was racially hurtful and offensive, with no substantiation or explanation.

The fact that it did not is indicative of not just poor judgement but an oppressive attitude towards citizens.

This is outrageous and dangerous. I grew up in an authoritarian state where the secret police were the primary instruments of the state used to control citizens through fear. It is nauseating to see democracy infected with a version of that corrosive element. At least they don’t physically torture their victims here. But torture them they do, psychologically and economically.

How could this happen in a democracy?

The AHRC and ICAC are both screened off from accessible public view (indeed, any view) by secretive provisions backed up by powerful legislation, which was intended to make them effective. Once ensconced in this expensive, state sponsored bunker, these organisations became self aggrendised fiefdoms, with hubris as the dress code. “How dare you question what I do,”says AHRC Commissioner Gillian Triggs. Examining witnesses was “like pulling wings off butterflies…” says ICAC’s Megan Latham.

“It must not be perceived as an institution culturally projecting an almost breathtaking arrogance in relation to its own powers, in relation to the people with whom it is dealing, in relation to other instit¬utions of governance of the state, not least the parliament to which the ICAC itself is accountable,” said David Levine, the Commission’s independent inspector. But that is after the fact; the inspector’s report is not preventative.

The two senior executives of these two organisations have by their undemocratic decisions destroyed the public’s confidence in their work and their agencies.

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