Australian Human Rights Commission is pitiful organisation

Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane. Picture: Kym Smith
Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane. Picture: Kym Smith


It was a great pity that Tony Abbott didn’t get around to abolishing the Australian Human Rights Commission. It was on his to-do list — he did manage to ditch quite a few other useless agencies — but he was rudely interrupted.

Mind you, whether he would have succeeded in pulling the plug on the AHRC is an open question. After all, he squibbed the challenge of getting rid of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act or even amending it.

We were reminded last week of what a pitiful organisation the AHRC is with the release of the risible report entitled Leading for Change: A Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership Revisited.

Yes, that really is a mouthful.

Mind you, it’s hardly surprising that the AHRC puts out these ridiculous reports because there is just so little work for it to do. With a budget allocation of almost $15 million, it handled 1939 complaints last year. This was slightly down on the number of complaints handled in the previous year — a total of 2013.

These are trivial numbers given there are more than 24 million Australians and we all fit into at least one of the AHRC’s categories: old, young, sex, disabled, race, indigenous and other.

It covers the whole field, yet the AHRC receives an incredibly small rate of complaints. They easily could be handled by bureaucrats working in the Attorney-General’s Department, for instance. Note also that most complaints about discrimination are handled by state agencies.

Unsurprisingly, the AHRC is an organisation that is keen to pat itself on the back. We are told in its latest glossy annual report that 1128 of the complaints were conciliated and 75 per cent ended in success, whatever that means.

Evidently, 95 per cent of users (they have plenty of time to do user surveys, of course) were satisfied with the service they received; 73 per cent rated it as “very good” or “excellent”. We are even given brief examples of the AHRC’s satisfied clients.

• “The service I received was very professional, friendly, the process was explained in a way that I could understand, I felt sup­ported.”

• “The process and service provided was very helpful, clear and easy to understand what was required to respond.”

• “The commission dealt with this matter very efficiently and with a great deal of consideration of both parties.”

Funnily enough, there is no mention of the views of those Queensland University of Technology students who were hounded and mistreated by the AHRC across the course of several years.

But here’s the bit I really love in the annual report: “Amendments to the handling of complaints occurred in the latter part of the fin­ancial year. The commission welcomed these amendments, some of which the commission proposed over eight years ago. A significant activity for the commission in the years ahead is to implement these amendments and embed new work practices in the handling of complaints.”

Are you confused? On the one hand, we are told the complaints handling process is perfection, with everyone happy. On the other hand, the complaints handling process has to be amended but that’s OK because the AHRC suggested these changes eight years ago, but it will take time to implement the changes.

Why don’t we just call the whole thing off?

So let’s return to the ridiculous report on cultural diversity. According to the warped methodology used, there are only four cultural backgrounds into which we all fit: Anglo-Celtic, European, non-European and indigenous. Where, you may ask, is Australian? Speaking personally, I don’t regard myself as fitting into any of those four categories because I am Australian.

The claim is made that 58 per cent of Australians are Anglo-Celt, 18 per cent are European, 21 per cent are non-European and 3 per cent are indigenous. But when I looked up the demographic statistics collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, I find that only 28 per cent of us were born overseas.

Moreover, the non-European proportion is much smaller than the quoted 21 per cent in the AHRC report. You see 2.2 per cent were born in China, 1.9 per cent in India, 1 per cent in Vietnam, 1 per cent in The Philippines, then some very small percentages after that. The total is nowhere near 21 per cent.

The explanation for the difference is that the report’s methodology — which was carried out, bizarrely, by the Reserve Bank of Australia (which is responsible for the conduct of monetary policy, by the way, and another organisation with time on its hands) — employs fancy statistical techniques to impute the ancestry of individuals on to the population.

So if one of your great-grandfathers was born in Hungary or Sweden, you are European. If one of your great-great-great-grandmothers was born in Shanghai, you are non-European. Declarations of ancestry count.

But the study quickly moves into real “jump the shark” territory by trying to infer the cultural backgrounds of senior leaders in Australia (corporate, public service, universities) by looking at pictures of them, assessing their public biographies and parsing what they have written or spoken. I’m not kidding.

You know where this is heading. Yes, the Anglo-Celts are vastly over-represented in leadership positions, Europeans do OK and the non-Europeans are massively under-represented. And the reasons for this last fact vary from outright discrimination to unconscious bias.

To resolve this seemingly disgraceful state of affairs — and let’s quote some dodgy study by McKinsey on the impact of cultural diversity on business performance in this context — businesses and organisations must set targets for cultural diversity, so says the AHRC. Granted, this could be a bit tricky because decision-makers often won’t know the cultural backgrounds of applicants. May­be CVs will require a full family tree as an accompanying document — along with a photograph, of course.

After the AHRC undertook the appallingly low-quality national survey on sexual assault and harassment experienced by students at Australian universities — less than 10 per cent response rate and unwelcome glances counting as harassment — you might have thought the commissioners would be wary about authorising yet another shoddy piece of work.

The only explanation I can think of is that this is the swan song of Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, who no doubt truly believes that racial quotas should be imposed on business and other organisations. Let’s just hope this report starts gathering dust very quickly.

Posted in Discrimination, Government Inquiries, Hot Topics, Social Commentary | Leave a comment

Don’t assume kids are cool with divorce … it can hurt like hell, for decades

Author and sketch writer James Jeffrey with his father Ian Picture: James Jeffrey
Author and sketch writer James Jeffrey with his father Ian Picture: James Jeffrey

Who remembers all those kids whose parents got divorced in the late 1970s or early 80s? Remember how resilient they were going to be? How divorce wasn’t ideal, but the kids would be OK because surely it was better for them to be raised in homes that weren’t full of rancour?

Kids were resilient! I’m repeating it, because that was the buzz word. They’d adjust to their new reality, and they’d be fine. How true has that proven to be? We can’t know for certain because every case, and indeed every kid, is different, and for sure there were — and are — plenty of miserable marriages that absolutely had to end, but in saying that can’t we also acknowledge the trauma inflicted on the children?

I think we’re going to have to acknowledge it, because those kids are all grown up, and they are starting to tell their side of the story. Not everyone is going to want to hear it.

Most readers will know the name James Jeffrey. He writes the Strewth column for this newspaper. He’s a unique individual, is James: he keeps pet snakes; he plays bagpipes; he speaks a little Hungarian. He’s got a mop of curly blond hair, and he’s got a curious way of walking up on the tips of his toes, flapping his hands a little, which gives him an entirely agreeable air.

James has this week published a memoir, My Family and Other Animus, and while it is in parts extremely funny, it’s the chapters about the divorce he lived through as a child that had me captivated.

This is the gen X experience. Forget what their boomer parents had to say. This is how it was for the kids.

James was eight when the marriage between his English father Ian and his Hungarian mother Eszter came to a dramatic end. He didn’t see it coming, and my best guess is that most kids don’t. James puts it this way: “Despite the impressive and growing body of evidence my parents had been building over the years — the shouting matches, slammed doors — it was something I’d really never thought about. Loveless as it had become, my parents’ marriage was something that was simply there, and probably eternal, like the sky.”

But then a knife was drawn and the police were called, and for some time afterwards James saw his mother only at weekends.

His parents sustained their rage against each other for decades, ­determined, he says, to inflict upon each other as much pain as ­possible.

“To really, really hurt each other. That was the goal,” he recalled this week.

James came to know the inside of the Family Court rather too well as the battle raged around him, and since the supposed resilience of the kids was all the go, nobody even tried to keep them out of it.

James remembers “a friendly man with a moustache, and a brown suit” sitting him down one day to say: “Of course you love your parents equally and they love you, but …”

Well, there’s no but quite like the but that comes in a Family Court matter, is there? “But if you have to choose, who would you prefer to live with?” Brutal.

James’s father won custody, which wouldn’t have been all that common, because in the days before the so-called “shared care amendments” to the Family Law Act of 2006, it was mainly the mum who kept the kids while dad would get them every second weekend and half the school holidays — and maybe for a desultory dinner on Wednesday night at McDonald’s, where there would be a playground and plenty of CCTV.

James recalls in his book the ­instability that became part of his life after the divorce. He tries to find some comfort in the fact that at least both parents wanted him. That wasn’t everyone’s ­exper­ience. But he can still remember everything the day it happened, down to the colour of the linoleum in the room where he was told that the only life he’d ever known was over.

A new, chaotic world rose in its place and, four decades later, he says: “I rarely go a week without thinking about it all.”

Forty years on, he still thinks about it every week? Yes, of course. Because we are all so resilient, aren’t we? We’re actually not. We suffer, and sometimes we take the suffering out on others, in ways both petty, and monstrous.

A year after the divorce of James’s parents went through, the old Family Court building in Sydney got bombed. A judge was murdered. That’s how bad it can get, and of course plenty of wives and children have been killed as they tried to make their way out the door.

Plenty of men have taken their own lives.

James says in his book that he was determined to turn his calamitous upbringing into “lessons that would guide me through life, into marriage, and parenthood”.

He never wanted to “come close to replicating the wasteland my parents called their marriage”.

Their wreckage would become “one of the guiding forces of my life”, he writes. “No part of the carcass has been wasted.”

When time came for James to marry and become a father himself, my God, he was going to do things differently. And that’s where you find joy in his book. On the first page, James says he started writing in part “as an explanation to my children as to why their parents kiss so much”.

Because it’s so gross to see old people — your parents! — kissing.

But, he says, “I can tell that at some level they secretly like that we are this way.” Because marriage is hard and some days — actually for some years, sometimes — it’s only going to be the dog that is happy to see you.

None of which is to say that parents shouldn’t get divorced. It happens, and it’s often necessary. In 25 years of adulthood I’ve never a met a person who was cavalier about their divorce.

A friend told me recently that she had been unhappy in her marriage for a decade.

A decade!

We don’t get that many decades, and by the time you get to your late 40s, you don’t have that many left. And yet she hung in there, and not only to avoid the blasted Family Court, described recently by one of the wise old judges, Robert Benjamin, as a place that thrives on a “culture of bitter, adversarial and highly aggressive litigation”.

He was talking about a case in which the warring parents had been encouraged by rapacious counsel to spend an eye-watering $860,000 on legal fees as they tore each other, and their children, to pieces.

“It must stop,” he said.

Not divorce. You’ll probably never stop that. But the ugliness that comes with it, because it’s really tough on the kids.

Both of James’s parents are now dead, but his mum was still alive when he finished the manuscript. In his hands, their warring comes across a touch comically, which is of course the point. What a waste of energy it was, to spend all that time arguing.

What a sapping of the human spirit. It must have taken some courage for James to write so openly about the collateral damage. However brutal the message, we should all be glad he did.

Posted in Family Law, Family Separation, Fatherhood, Hot Topics, Social Commentary | Leave a comment