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.