‘Top-heavy’ Human Rights Commission straining under cuts

By Stephen Easton

Monday May 9, 2016

Gillian Triggs
Gillian Triggs

The Australian Human Rights Commission is struggling under severe budget cuts and with one extra commissioner on board, president Gillian Triggs says.

The announcement last week filling three advocate positions for human rights, ageing and disability has put strain on an organisation Triggs worries has become too top-heavy. Previously, the ageing and disability roles were both covered by the one commissioner, Susan Ryan.

“I believe we do not have funding for us to properly meet our statutory obligations,” Triggs (pictured) said in budget Estimates last week.

Recent cuts were “very significant” and came after “many years” of funding decline, she said, pointing out that every further reduction to the HRC’s “tiny core budget of about $15 million” had a material impact on its work.

Asked about the impact of the “$2 million-plus special efficiency dividend” that came in the federal budget by Labor Senator Catryna Bilyk, Triggs said it was “increasingly difficult as these dividends are brought against the commission’s budget, particularly in light of a $5 million reduction for last year’s budget and for the next two”:

“We have budget reductions which are very significant. When you have a budget of $15 million and then you have a budget reduction of $5 million plus another half a million each year, you are obviously looking at reducing the capacity of an organisation to meets its statutory obligations.”

Triggs said the HRC’s “information, conciliation and complaints service” — which actually provides a large net saving to the government overall — was coming under pressure from funding cuts in particular.

An accounting firm roughly estimated this part of the agency’s work saves taxpayers “in the order of $200 million” a year through avoided court costs by resolving about 73% of formal complaints to the commission through conciliation, she explained.

Triggs said the commission was now seeing “significantly rising numbers of complaints, with fewer resources” to resolve them:

“That is of particular concern to me because that service provides, for no cost to the taxpayer, access to justice before complaints would go to the court or I would be required to give a parliamentary report.”

The HRC president confirmed the decision to fill all the maximum number of commissioner roles without commensurate funding puts further strain on its budget.

She expressed hope Attorney-General George Brandis could be persuaded to fund the new position to the tune of $700,000, reporting the commission had raised the issue with Brandis through “informal discussions … over a over a very long period of time”:

“It means that we have fewer and fewer staff to support the work of what becomes in effect a top-heavy commission, with seven commissioners and a president.

“We simply do not have the ability to service the needs of each of those commissioners if we are not funded to do so.”

According to Triggs, “it is certain that jobs will be lost” without the extra funding.

The budget papers project a reduction of three full-time equivalent positions in the HRC’s average staffing level from 114 in 2015-16 to 111 for the coming financial year.

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