Labor and Democrat politicians have banded together to condemn federal government plans to alter the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).

Legislation introduced by Attorney-General Daryl Williams last month seeks to replace HREOC’s specialist commissioners with a new structure of commissioners without specific portfolio responsibilities. The new laws would also require HREOC to seek the attorney-general’s permission before intervening in court cases, and would re-brand the organisation with the by-line: human rights, everyone’s responsibility.

The legislation is substantially similar to a government bill introduced to parliament in 1998.

Democrats Senator Brian Greig told Sydney Star Observer that the government was happy to abandon its plans in 1998, but that it was more gingered up this time around, in the wake of Tampa, the transgender marriage case and the lesbian access to IVF issue.

I find it a bit suspicious -¦ that the government has introduced this bill at a time when Australians are distracted by the war, Greig said.

Shadow Attorney-General Robert McLelland told the Star that Labor would oppose the changes.

This is a further weakening of the role of HREOC, McLelland said. We are very concerned that Daryl Williams is talking about imposing himself as a gateway to the Commission commencing court proceedings. We think this will only reduce the effectiveness of HREOC as an independent body promoting and enforcing human rights.

It was ironic, McLelland added, that the government used human rights to justify the war on Iraq, but was simultaneously proposing measures to wind back human rights protections in Australia.

Greig said he would be proposing an amendment to the legislation which would call for the retention of the specialist commissioner structure and the creation of a new sexuality discrimination portfolio.

Concerned organisations and individuals should write to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee about the new legislation, Greig said.

[The Bill] will have a significant impact on the Commission’s capacity to properly fulfil its role as an independent advocate for human rights, Greig said. [This Bill] threatens to substantially wind back the limited human rights protections that exist.

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