Senator David Shoebridge – Estimates questions relating to the AHRC’s receipt of grants for social cohesion earmarked for Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities

Photo of Senator David Shoebridge
May 31, 2024

President, the commission received some of the $25 million that was earmarked by Home Affairs and the Attorney-General’s Department to support the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities, as part of social cohesion grants. Do you remember getting those funds?

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Thanks, Chair. President, the commission received some of the $25 million that was earmarked by Home Affairs and the Attorney-General’s Department to support the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities, as part of social cohesion grants. Do you remember getting those funds?

Prof. Croucher: If I may, I’ve invited Commissioner Sivaraman, who is responsible for this aspect of our work, to address your specific questions.

Mr Sivaraman: Do you mind repeating the question, Senator; my apologies.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Last year, the government announced $25 million of social cohesion grants for the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities as part of the response to the conflict in Gaza. I understand some of that money instead went to the commission. Is that right?

Mr Sivaraman: Yes; some. That’s correct.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: How much?

Mr Sivaraman: At this stage I think the total allocation—not all of which has been received—is $2 million.

Prof. Croucher: That’s correct.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Almost 10 per cent of the money that was meant to go to the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities instead was redirected to the commission. President, why didn’t you say no? Why didn’t you say, ‘This is money that was meant to go to the community and it’s deeply inappropriate for it to go to a government agency’? Why didn’t you say no?

Prof. Croucher: The opportunity to conduct consultations supported by funding was a welcome one.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Every cent you got was at the expense of the community itself. These were meant to be social cohesion grants for the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities. Instead, about 10 per cent of that money was diverted to a government agency. Why didn’t you say no? Why didn’t you say, ‘That’s inappropriate’?

Prof. Croucher: Our understanding is that the funding is in addition to a first round of funding for communities.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: No. We had it very clearly explained by Home Affairs earlier this year that every cent that went to you was taken out of the $25 million pot that was meant to be set aside for those communities.

Prof. Croucher: I can’t comment on that.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: That explanation by Home Affairs has been on a publicly available website for months now. Do you really think it’s appropriate, when a community is in so much pain, as the Palestinian community is, that your organisation, which is meant to be there to evenly and fairly represent them, instead is taking money that was meant to be going there, for the community, at this moment of desperate need? Do you really think that’s the right decision?

CHAIR: President, before you answer that question, Senator Shoebridge, I appreciate that you haven’t been with us for the majority of the morning. We have had some discussion about asking the commission to put opinions. There’s obviously some flexibility with that. Asking this body to provide you with an answer about a funding decision of another department I think strays into irrelevance.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Alright.

CHAIR: What I have asked senators to do, if I can give you some guidance, is consider how they are phrasing their question so that they are asking the commission about the functions that they perform. I am sure that you are capable of doing that.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Why didn’t you say no to $2 million that was meant to go to the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities at this time of crisis that they’re suffering? Why didn’t you say no?

Prof. Croucher: The funding decisions are matters for government. We made it quite clear that any support that we would get would be directed towards consultations with all communities.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Commissioner Sivaraman, is that right: it’s consultation with all communities that the $2 million is going towards?

Mr Sivaraman: Correct.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: It is not even going towards the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities? You’re not even directing that funding to support them?

Mr Sivaraman: I am engaging with Arab, Muslim and Palestinian communities. I think you weren’t here earlier, Senator Shoebridge.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I have been watching.

Mr Sivaraman: Good. You would have heard that I started doing that quite early on in my term. We will definitely be engaging with those communities.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: No, you will be engaging with them as well as all other communities, from the $2 million that was meant to be set aside to help the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities. That’s as I understand your evidence now. Is that right?

Mr Sivaraman: Yes. Just to be clear: it is other communities affected by the increase in racism since October.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: The Jewish community, quite appropriately, got $25 million, which was provided directly to the peak body there to be used to assist the Jewish community; and $25 million was then set aside, apparently, for the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities. Now $2 million of that has been skimmed off, taken to the commission and then not even used by the commission for those communities. Do you understand how that makes the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities feel marginalised, feel less important, feel disrespected? Do you understand that?

Mr Sivaraman: If that’s a question, I can say this: in the engagement that I’ve had with the Arab, Muslim and Palestinian communities, they’ve actually been really strongly supportive of my involvement and the role the commission is playing. They have been really happy to meet with me and other members of my team, to have genuine engagement, and for us to provide a means to hear their voice and to amplify their voice.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: What many people in the Palestinian community have said to me is that they feel like staff members in the commission who identify from within the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities have been targeted. They feel like one of your colleagues has been openly partisan and only representing one community group in this space. They feel like the commission is not being fair and is not being impartial. Do you say none of that feedback has come to you?

Mr Sivaraman: No, not in that entirety. As I said, the engagement I’ve had to date has been really promising, actually. It has been strong. I have met with groups that now want to engage even further. They are really happy that we are providing a means for them to tell us what’s happening in their communities.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You say ‘not in that entirety’.

Mr Sivaraman: Yes.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You acknowledge that, at least from your perspective—even if it differs from what I’m hearing from the community—there are elements of what I put to you that are being reflected back from the community. What are they telling you?

Mr Sivaraman: To date, I’ve had about 12 meetings, plus more informal discussions. I only recall one meeting where any kind of concern like that was raised. The meetings are held on the basis, often, that they are confidential. I don’t want to talk about the details of who has participated without getting their consent first. My point is that it’s been pretty rare. The engagement that we’ve had generally has been quite supportive.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: One of the issues that have been raised directly with my office about a sense of biased, unfair action by the commission was in one of your colleagues publishing an opinion piece that cited data that is based upon the very disputed IHRA definition of antisemitism. It cited a figure of a 738 per cent rise in antisemitism, based upon a definition of antisemitism that conflates any criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism. Has any member of the Palestinian community, the Arab community or the Muslim community raised concerns about that with you?

Mr Sivaraman: About a specific piece that’s been published by one of my colleagues?

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: About the use of that data.

Prof. Croucher: If I may—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You can’t answer what has been raised with the commissioner.

Prof. Croucher: No, but with respect to the point you are making, some of the information about what was contained in that opinion piece I would say is not correct. It might be appropriate for Commissioner Finlay, who was the author of that piece, to speak to you about that.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: We can come to that in due course. I am asking about what has been raised with the Race Discrimination Commissioner in his engagement with the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities. I don’t think Commissioner Finlay can help with that.

Prof. Croucher: No, but it was the point that you were putting about the inaccuracy of the information.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Given the need to be timely, can my answer be answered by the only person who can? Commissioner.

Mr Sivaraman : I’m just trying to recall whether that very specific issue has been raised. It may have been raised in one of the consultations but, by and large, it hasn’t. So, most of the consultations have been about what is actually happening to community members; do they feel safe or unsafe within communities; and things that are happening in various places, including public places. It hasn’t been about an op-ed or the definition as you’ve just pointed to.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: President, there’s been a number of questions about whether the commission endorses some social media comments made by staff when they’re not working. This was an opinion piece put in the name of one of your commissioners, in her role as a commissioner, using data that is highly contested because it includes data that conflates the criticism of Israel, which many people say is perfectly legitimate, with antisemitism, the IHRA definition. Do you endorse the use of the data that is founded in the IHRA definition which conflates any criticism of Israel with antisemitism?

Senator SCARR: That’s a misrepresentation.

Prof. Croucher : Senator, I pointed out that the piece does not use the language that you suggest and I direct you back to the actual text of that piece. It’s an 800-odd word piece, an opinion piece. I think it’s also important to point out that our commissioners are independent statutory office holders, each with an opportunity to act as independent statutory office holders even within the commission itself. The independence of the commission rests with us as the commissioners; it does not rest in the staff. The staff are bound by the Public Service Code of Conduct, and they are the different lenses we apply. As it’s been pointed out in the evidence before, Commissioner Finlay’s piece is one part of a set of contributions in relation to addressing the impact on communities in Australia. While it’s focused on the significant increase in antisemitic incidents, it doesn’t detract in any way from the other contributions; it complements the contributions that other commissioners have made and indeed have been highlighted by Commissioner Sivaraman in relation to the work he’s conducting.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You say that this is all independent, but I’m sure that you saw a draft of the opinion piece before it went to print.

Prof. Croucher : It is our practice to provide drafts—indeed, Commissioner Finlay shares drafts of things as other commissioners do—and we provide feedback to each other which is respectfully considered in each case.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Do you take issue with the use of that data or do you say it’s fine for it to go out under the commission’s name?

Prof. Croucher : Senator, the issue that was raised was the significant increase in antisemitism in Australia. It’s not about a definition; it’s about the significant rise in antisemitic incidents. That is a fact. The extent of it you can go into discussion about, but I have no difficulty with the way it was described in Commissioner Finlay’s article.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You have no difficulty with the use of that figure and that data being based upon the highly contested IHRA of antisemitism—you have no issue with that either?

Prof. Croucher : Senator, there was no figure used in that article; it was a reference to a significant, massive or some appropriate adjective to flag the increase in antisemitic incidents. There was no figure quoted in that opinion piece.

CHAIR: Senator Shoebridge, I do have to share the call. I’m going to hand to Senator Ghosh in a second. Can I just ask, because it occurs to me, we’ve had a lot of questions this morning about opinion pieces and I think that’s nothing new for this committee. We do ask the Human Rights Commission about opinion pieces from time to time, but what would be the result of not putting out opinions, having views, talking about these issues or having these conversations in the community? I don’t think we would want to get to a position where commissioners are censoring themselves or not being part of the discussion. What role do opinion pieces—whether you agree with them or not—have as being part of the conversation in the community?

Prof. Croucher : They are reflective pieces by the commissioner with respect to their role, so they provide a contribution within the individual commissioner’s statutory mandate to an ongoing conversation.

CHAIR: Senator Ghosh, you have the call and then we’ll come to you, Senator Henderson.

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