There was an “error” in the way the Australian Human Rights Commission handled the case of seven Queensland students wrongly accused of racism, the AHRC’s former president Gillian Triggs said on ABC-TV last night.
The students were the subject of a complaint from Cindy Prior, a staffer at the Queensland University of Technology. Ms Prior had asked the students to leave a computer lab because it was reserved for indigenous students.
One of the students, Calum Thwaites, was in the audience of Q&A last night while Professor Triggs was on the panel, and was granted the show’s opening question. He pointed out that Professor Triggs had during her tenure made several public comments about his case that were widely perceived as outside the president’s role.
He said Professor Triggs’ successor, Rosalind Croucher, refused to engage with the media. “Do you think this stance is more appropriate?” he asked.
This triggered a debate about the merits or otherwise of the way the AHRC handled the case, especially regarding the AHRC’s decision to not inform the students about Ms Prior’s complaint for 14 months.
“The job of the commission, one of many jobs, is to try to conciliate these matters - in other words, to keep them out of the courts,” Professor Triggs said. “And normally, in the about 2000 a year we conciliate, we conciliate successfully in 76 per cent of cases. Sometimes those cases cannot be conciliated, and this was one of them.
“My own view is that the commission did an excellent job. We met all the statutory requirements and so on... except to say that all of the commission staff were very concerned that it wasn’t possible for the parties to reach a conciliation. But if they don’t, if they can’t come together, then in the end one of the parties, the complainant, has a right to go to the Federal Court, which happened in this case and we got a rule of law determination, which was a just one in the circumstances.”
Simon Breheny of the Institute of Public Affairs, sitting next to Triggs on the panel, expressed considerable surprise at these statements. “How can you say, though, that the way the AHRC handled this case was excellent when Callum and other students’ names were dragged through the mud throughout this process,” he said. “They were not told about the complaint until two business days before the conciliation proceeding. Frankly I just find it amazing that you would stand here and say that you thought the way the commission acted was excellent.”
Professor Triggs replied by saying the university was “very concerned about the impact this had on all of the parties”.
As well she might be. Thwaites said that as a result of the complaint, “seven students almost had their lives ruined”. That wasn’t all. Cindy Prior, he said, was currently facing $120,000 costs order against her for the Federal Court case she pursued, which was unsuccessful.
“It’s not good enough to say we will do better next time,” Thwaites said, receiving a rare round of applause for a conservative from the Q&A audience. “This shouldn’t have happened in the first place.” - Fred Pawle