Senator David Shoebridge – Estimates questions to the Australian Human Rights Commission regarding its work calling out Islamophobia; its contract with Hue Consulting and its position on whether the Palestinian people in Gaza are currently facing genocide

Photo of Senator David Shoebridge
May 31, 2024

I’m asking you, as the Human Rights Commissioner, if you agree with the statement that the Palestinian people in Gaza are currently facing a genocide. Do you agree with that statement?

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Commissioner Finlay, one of the roles of a human rights commissioner is to deal with the human rights of multicultural Australia and indeed all of Australia in an even-handed fashion. Do you agree?

Ms Finlay : Yes, in conjunction with my commissioner colleagues, including and in particular the Race Discrimination Commissioner.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: But you as the Human Rights Commissioner?

Ms Finlay : Yes.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: It’s your job too, isn’t it?

Ms Finlay : Of course—as I said, in conjunction with the entirety of my commissioner colleagues. We all have that role, yes.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Individually, severally and collectively, you have that role.

Ms Finlay : I think we’re in furious agreement, Senator.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Terrific. I think you recently attended a filming of Screams Before Silence, and you were photographed at the event.

Ms Finlay : Yes.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: And in doing that you were supporting the Jewish community in particular?

Ms Finlay : No. In doing that, I was attending an event that was highlighting the use of sexual violence against women in Israel.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I want to be clear that there’s no criticism of you attending the event. Can you point to a similar event that you’ve attended being conducted by the Palestinian community, who are suffering quite horrific violence at the moment? Can you point to a public event that you’ve attended hosted by the Palestinian community?

Ms Finlay : Perhaps I can answer it this way. I don’t think there is an equivalence in terms of, ‘If you attend one event for one community, you have to balance that out by attending a similar event for the other community.’ I will attend any events I’m invited to that relate to my role and that I can, where it’s possible to, and I have no hesitation in doing that. Perhaps I can go back to my earlier statement, where I said—and I stand by this fact—that racism needs to be called out and condemned no matter who the target is.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Indeed.

Ms Finlay : I’m open to attending any events in support of that principle and meeting with any groups in support of that principle. Regarding the suggestion that because I attended one event I’m somehow biased or prejudiced in the role that I take, I reject that suggestion strongly.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: By all means, attend that event. No one’s criticising you for attending that event. The concern is that there’s been, for example, a Palestinian Film Festival, which has been all around the country with multiple films showing the appalling history and the current circumstances faced by the Palestinian people. You have had dozens and dozens of opportunities to attend even one of those film screenings.

Ms Finlay : I’d simply respond by saying I have not been invited to attend that event, and I would be more than happy to do so if I was.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: The good news is it’s continuing to show.

Ms Finlay : Excellent.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Will you proactively reach out, or are you waiting for an invitation?

Ms Finlay : I’m more than happy to attend any event that I can reasonably attend that relates to my role and that can show a commitment to stamping out racism and condemning racism in my form. But, again, I must very strongly reject the suggestion not only from this question but also from earlier statements that you made in questions to the Race Discrimination Commissioner that, because I attended an event and wrote an opinion piece, somehow I’m prejudiced in my approach to the role that I take. I’ll place on the record that my approach is that racism needs to be condemned no matter where it comes from—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: On which we agree.

Ms Finlay : and expressing concern about antisemitism doesn’t imply a diminished concern about other forms of racism.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: No-one suggested otherwise.

Ms Finlay : I would reiterate that, through my opinion piece and my attendance at the film that you’re talking about, what it was doing is noting that, in the current circumstances, calling out antisemitism and unequivocally condemning it is not only important but entirely appropriate in my role as the Human Rights Commissioner.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: And indeed condemning antisemitism is something that I hope is a matter shared equally across the political spectrum and on both sides of this table. The concern that has been raised with me is from members within the Palestinian community. They haven’t seen you call out Islamophobia, they haven’t seen you raise the plight of the Palestinian people who are currently suffering from a genocide and they don’t feel like they’ve been listened to by you.

Ms Finlay : Again, I have had meetings with groups that have asked to meet with me, and I meet with a wide variety of people. The fact that I have written an opinion piece that unequivocally condemns antisemitism doesn’t necessarily diminish concerns about other forms of racism, and the suggestion that it does or that somehow I’m not concerned with other communities is actually directly the opposite of what I wrote in that opinion piece.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Do you agree that the Palestinian people at the moment need the support of the Human Rights Commissioner because they are suffering from what is unquestionably a genocide? Do you have that form of common agreement with the plight of the Palestinian people?

Ms Finlay : I agree with the statements I have made previously that I believe answer that questions in terms of racism in all its forms needing to be condemned.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I’m asking you, as the Human Rights Commissioner, if you agree with the statement that the Palestinian people in Gaza are currently facing a genocide. Do you agree with that statement?

CHAIR: Senator Shoebridge, this has come up through the course of the morning, where statements of various kinds have been put to commissioners. We’re here to ask questions about their role and their functions, and, if you can couch your question in that way, that would assist. I was also wondering, Senator Shoebridge, if I can get some guidance on whether there are any further questions for the president directly or whether those questions could be asked of other officials.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I have one question about the Hue contract, and I think you might have been dealing with that, President. Is that right?

CHAIR: I have asked a series of questions about that to the chief executive.

Prof. Croucher : Yes, the chief executive was answering questions with respect to that.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: If you’re not needed for that, President, then, for my purposes, I wish you well on your flight.

Prof. Croucher : Thank you. And thank you very much to this committee for indulging me on this occasion. As it’s my last, it’s the only indulgence I’ll ask!

Senator SCARR: We’re invigorated!

CHAIR: Thanks very much, President. Senator Shoebridge, you still have the call. And that’s correct; we have had questions about that this morning, and the chief executive actually provided some answers, as did the race commissioner.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: As a result of those questions and answers, I have some further questions.

CHAIR: Sure.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Ms Smith, you mentioned you had questions from the A-G’s Department in the regular meetings that you had, following the publication of the Australian article on 19 March in relation to that contract. Do you remember saying that?

Ms Smith : That’s correct.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: What were the questions they had?

Ms Smith : In regular catch-ups with the department, I was asked what the status of the contract was.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Is that it? They just said, ‘What is the status of contract?’

Ms Smith : That’s right. And I gave updates on where we were at.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Did they raise the Australian article with you?

Ms Smith : No, but the updates came after the Australian article was published.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Did they raise the issues set out in the Australian article with you?

Ms Smith : No, they asked me: ‘Is this reporting correct? Do you have a contract with Hue?’ And then we regularly updated them on where we were at.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: How could they have not raised the Australian article with you and then asked whether the reporting was correct? How do those two statements fit together?

Ms Smith : Sorry. I don’t understand.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You said that they didn’t raise the Australian article with you, and then you then said—

Ms Smith : I said that—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You have a point of clarification? You then said they asked if the reporting was correct. Which of those two statements is correct?

Ms Smith : I said that it came up after the reporting in the Australian, and I was asked whether the commission had a contract with Hue.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: As you said earlier, did they ask you if the reporting was correct?

Ms Smith : I’m not sure.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You just said they asked you if the reporting was correct. I’m testing: did they ask that?

Ms Smith : I’m trying to recall the conversations as they happened. This was an over-the-phone conversation.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: At the time that the contract was terminated, did you say that the contract had effectively concluded?

Ms Smith : The contract was altered, not terminated.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: It was altered to terminate it.

Ms Smith : It was altered by bringing forward the end of the contract. The contract was to develop materials. The contract was through to 2026. Once the materials were completed, the relationship with Hue was to be that those materials would be hosted on their website. We altered the contract in order that those materials would not be hosted on the Hue website; they would be hosted on the commission’s website once the content was delivered.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I don’t think it would be fruitful to re-engage with the exchange you had with Senator Faruqi about altering a contract and terminating a contract when the alteration is to bring forward the termination date. But I put to you what Senator Faruqi said to you about bringing forward the contract date so that it terminates rapidly is actually terminating the contract, isn’t it? That’s what Senator Faruqi put to you, and that remains true, doesn’t it?

Ms Smith : I can’t answer that.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Indeed, the Hue content wasn’t completed and wasn’t ready to be finished. Your evidence about that earlier wasn’t accurate, because the teacher and student consultation wasn’t done. In fact, it was just the first of three rounds of consultation that had been completed. That’s the truth of the matter, isn’t it?

Ms Smith : I would have to look at the contract, but I think those deliverables were actually overdue at that point in time under the contract.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: ‘Deliverables overdue’ is quite different to even your evidence you just gave earlier about the materials having been completed. It was nowhere near completed. They were in the middle of consultation. They had done one of three rounds of consultation, and you terminated the contract because of pressure from the Australian. That’s what happened, isn’t it?

Ms Smith : No. There were a number of deliverables under the contract. We altered the contract to reduce the number of deliverables, and we got the deliverables we needed in terms of the content of the materials, which we’ll now review and host on our own webpage.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Did you pay Hue less under the, as you describe it, altered contract than you would have?

Ms Smith : Yes, because there were fewer deliverables.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: How much was the contract price reduced by?

Ms Smith : The original value of the contract was $77,665, and the final payment was for $51,590. Hue is no longer required to design the web platform or host the materials. They agreed to that.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You’re saying they agreed to that—they agreed to the early termination and the reduction in quantum of their contract?

Ms Smith : They did.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: What really happened was the Australian published their attack. Those same concerns were directed to you from the department. And then, as a result of the attack in a Murdoch newspaper, you terminated the contract, didn’t you?

Ms Smith : No, and I find that insulting. The commission is an independent statutory authority—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: It should be.

Ms Smith : and we took the action we took after serious consideration by all commissioners, the team and the staff. We did what we thought was in the best interests of the institution.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Was the AHRC contacted by the Australian journalist?

Ms Smith : I don’t know.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Will you take that on notice?

Ms Smith : Certainly.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Will you take on notice, if they were, how the commission responded?

Ms Smith : Certainly.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Did the commission tell Hue at the time of the publishing of the Australian piece that in fact, the contract was fine, and it would continue on?

Ms Smith : Are you asking me about the conversation that we held with Hue on 5 April?

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: After the publishing of the article. Yes.

Ms Smith : As I said earlier, as soon as we became aware of the article we sought a meeting with Hue and we gave them the opportunity to explain their perspective on what had been reported, including around the doxxing allegations. We explained to Hue the challenges that that public media had on our standing as an independent institution with integrity in the eyes of all communities.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: This was as a result of an attack piece in the Australian against a contractor. I think that you agreed that you investigated the doxxing allegations, and you formed the view it wasn’t doxxing. Is that right? Was that your evidence earlier?

Ms Smith : Without being experts in doxxing and without having legislation around doxxing, it was our view that they’d taken measured steps.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Do you want to recant from the evidence you gave earlier that it was the opinion of the commission that it wasn’t doxxing? Do you want to change that evidence?

Ms Smith : I don’t think there’s any inconsistency in what I said.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You concluded it wasn’t doxxing, and yet you still terminated the contract?

Ms Smith : That’s right.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: How can we not read that other than what should be an independent statutory body in fact, being politically pressured by a Murdoch newspaper? How could we read it as anything other than that?

Ms Smith : I’ve already answered this question. We took the action we took under the contract on the basis that we had feedback from the community—through our national information service and our public affairs strategic communications team—that raised concerns about the social media activity of the director, and that had an impact on the community’s trust and confidence in our institution.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Chair, just because I notice the time, I’ll ask for this to be done on notice. Ms Smith, could you on notice provide details of who in the community and what organisations in the community contacted you that led to the conclusion that you said?

Ms Smith : No, I won’t be in a position to do that, because we don’t keep the records of those individuals when they contact us through the national information service or strategic communications.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Then I’m going to ask you: who were you told had communicated? What’s your memory then?

Ms Smith : I will be able to give you a record from both of those teams within the commission of what those concerns raised were.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You say the reason for the termination was community contacts, but you didn’t keep a record of the community contacts.

Ms Smith : We also viewed some of the content, and, given that the contract was to develop educational materials for primary school students, we considered that some of the content that was on social media would also draw problems for us in terms of how the materials we produce would be received by teachers in schools and the community.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: But yet you say you didn’t terminate the contract. Is that still your evidence?

Ms Smith : We continued the contract with Hue to ensure the deliverable of the content we need so that we could ensure we got value for money for the Commonwealth. We will now take those materials, review them, and put them on our own website.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Chair, I just note the time.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Shoebridge. I understand that’s all of the questions that we have for the Australian Human Rights Commission. Thank you very much, especially to our new commissioners.

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