Senator David Shoebridge – Estimates questions to the Australian Human Rights Commission regarding the Commission’s approach to Palestine and Gaza

Photo of Senator David Shoebridge
February 13, 2024

You know that many, many of your staff are deeply, deeply unhappy with the approach that the commission has taken in relation to the issues—the violence in Palestine and Gaza. Are you aware of the significant concern amongst your staff?

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I reflect the same comments in relation to Ms Oscar. We acknowledge the work and are grateful, and I express gratitude from my party. President, you would be aware of concerns that have been expressed about the difference between the commission’s treatment of the war in Ukraine and the war that’s happening at the moment in Israel and Palestine—in particular, concerns that commissioners and the commission very clearly took in a public statement condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine that happened in weeks, yet there hasn’t been any clear similar response about the invasion of Gaza. Can you explain why there have been such different treatments?

Prof. Croucher : The statement on the Ukraine was not a commission statement; it was a statement by a commissioner. It was an opinion piece by one of my colleagues. We respect the position of our colleagues. We are each independent statutory office holders, but together we are the commission. We work by consensus when we reach a commission position and make a statement as the commission, but there are times when commissioners seek to express their opinions, usually through the vehicle of an opinion piece, on issues that particularly fall within their portfolios or on which they have a particular view. So there is a clear distinction. The focus was the same—that is, the concern for the human rights of people affected. That’s within the domestic communities, but, in either case, where there are resonances with our colleagues in the National Human Rights Institution world more broadly. We echo those concerns in various ways. So they’re not similar, but the focus on human rights is the same.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You know that many, many of your staff are deeply, deeply unhappy with the approach that the commission has taken in relation to the issues—the violence in Palestine and Gaza. Are you aware of the significant concern amongst your staff?

Prof. Croucher : I’m aware of some concern, but the extent of such concern is unknown to me.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I’ll show you two documents. I’m sure that they won’t come as a surprise to you.

Prof. Croucher : I am aware of these documents.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: The first is a letter dated 28 January 2024, signed by a collective of commission staff, and it begins:

We write to you, as a collective of concerned staff across eight teams at the Australian Human Rights Commission (Commission), to express our frustration at the Commission’s failure to fulfil its mandate as an accredited national human rights institution in regard to Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.’

You’re aware that those concerns came to you from across eight teams?

Prof. Croucher : I am aware of the letter. I received that letter on Sunday 28 January, the date you identified. It was an anonymous letter through an anonymous email. I have no idea how many people were behind it. As it expressed concern of staff, of course I am deeply concerned that they felt the need to write in that way. There are issues that they raise that misunderstand our mandate, with respect, and our focus has been to understand the motivation and the disappointment, and to assure staff that our concern for their wellbeing is a paramount concern. When it comes to issues of discussion about the role of the commission, the constraints that we have under our statute and the constraints that public servants have under the code of conduct, all of those issues deserve thorough consideration. I am concerned that staff—however many there were, and, as I said, it’s very unclear—felt the need to go that route when we have clear, established routes for hearing concerns within the commission. That I found disappointing.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: They explained why they took that route, didn’t they? They explained it clearly in the letter. They said, ‘We’ve chosen to remain anonymous due to the culture of silence of the commission.’

Prof. Croucher : I dispute that—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Let me finish. You dispute it’s in the letter?

Prof. Croucher : No.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Let me read to you to explain why they said they had to remain anonymous. This is what they said:

We have chosen to remain anonymous due to the culture of silence at the Commission. We have witnessed staff who take a rights-based approach to this issue be cautioned and disciplined. We also note the lack of safe channels for concern to be discussed without fear of adverse action and the impact this has had on our wellbeing and psychosocial safety.

They explain to you why they approached you anonymously. It’s because they were fearful of the response.

Prof. Croucher : I responded on the key issues raised in that letter. As I said, the concerns were directed to the commission. The commission—as in the group of commissioners—considered the concerns raised in that letter very thoroughly, and we continue to engage with the concerns raised in that letter as a group of commissioners, exercising our role jointly as the commission. I responded directly to the correspondence in a letter on the following Monday that I wrote in consultation and as an expression of the commissioner group.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Do you have that letter with you, President?

Prof. Croucher : I don’t have it with me.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Will you provide a copy?

Prof. Croucher : I’ll have to consider whether it’s appropriate to share that kind of correspondence.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Will you take it on notice?

Prof. Croucher : I will certainly take that on notice. What I would be happy to share is the email I provided to all the commission. As I said, it was an anonymous email channel and I have no idea about its source—all of that. What I can share with you is the email I shared with the whole commission that I composed in consultation with my commissioner colleagues after the details of the letter were raised by the Guardian. It was not a matter we discussed internally. It was just raised externally through the Guardian newspaper. That shocked a lot of the staff who were not part of that group. We had people asking, ‘What’s going on?’ They were terribly concerned to see the commission written about in that way in the paper. In response to that, I wrote a very carefully worded email, in consultation with my commissioner colleagues, that I would be very happy to provide to you because it was shared with the entire commission. That provides the response of the commissioner group to the concerns as they were ventilated through the newspaper.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: But the Guardian article was more than a month after this letter, wasn’t it?

Prof. Croucher : No. The Guardian article was last week. It all happened very, very quickly. I received this anonymous—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Sorry, I withdraw that. It was more than a week after the letter. It says it was published on 7 February, and the letter came to you on 28 January.

Prof. Croucher : Yes, the letter came—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Do you not see how your response to my questions challenging the reasons for anonymity and challenging the validity of the statement that it comes from a collective of concerned staff across eight teams may be received by staff in your workplace as you dismissing these concerns and, indeed, questioning their integrity and the legitimacy of the concerns raised?

Prof. Croucher : I don’t accept the premise of a number of a the points you have raised with me. I start with the proposition that we are deeply concerned about the welfare of staff. There were several communications from me directly to staff expressing concern about the impact of the situation in the Middle East on our staff because many staff have family members that are affected by the situation continuing at the moment. We provided a whole range of communications. We set up a whole series of internal channels to consider things. They were open channels, not silencing ones.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Staff have told you they don’t feel safe approaching you. They’ve raised concerns including that there are sanctions being applied to them when they raise these concerns. Have any staff been sanctioned for such things as signing pro-Palestine petitions or wearing a keffiyeh to work? Have sanctions or actions been taken against staff for taking either of those actions?

Prof. Croucher : No. Our chief executive has reminded staff on a couple of occasions—indeed, the union itself took the initiative of reminding staff—about the importance of being apolitical and impartial and of their obligations that sit under the code of conduct. We have reminded staff about such matters and, if there are any issues of concern raised by staff, they are considered confidentially through the appropriate channels within the commission. I find the idea of sanctions a little concerning, because there are no sanctions.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You’ve told them that that behaviour may be a breach of the code of conduct; is that right? That is what I am to understand. Have you indicated to staff that such conduct as the signing of a pro-Palestinian petition or the wearing of keffiyeh might be a breach of the code of conduct?

Prof. Croucher : No.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: So you are telling me no staff member has been sanctioned in any way or disciplined for expressing pro-Palestinian opinions?

Prof. Croucher : Staff have been reminded about their need to behave within the constraints of the code of conduct. That reminder is to ensure that they respect their obligations as public servants in their conduct. There is no sanctioning of the kind that you refer to. Ms Smith deals with staff matters. Perhaps I can invite her to comment. But our concern is for staff and to remind them about their obligations as well.

Ms Smith : Like a lot of organisations, we have staff in our community and our families who are feeling very strongly about what’s happening in the Middle East and the impact it is having in Australia on all sides. We have been working with our staff to help them understand as Australian public servants their right to freedom of expression as individual citizens and their responsibilities under the code of conduct. That’s for staff with differing views on what is happening at the moment in the Middle East. No-one has been sanctioned at all.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: President, one of the very real concerns that staff put in this communication to you was about the failure to show leadership. I’ll quote from the communication: ‘The commission has failed to hold the Australian government accountable for its involvement in human rights violations in Palestine and repressive rhetoric and practices directed towards and actively harming communities in Australia. Due to a lack of leadership, the commission has become complicit in the erosion of human rights.’ In light of the now almost 30,000 Palestinians, majority women and children, who have been killed in the conflict in Gaza, have you reflected on your role and your need to speak to the fundamental human rights issues at play there, given what staff have told you?

Prof. Croucher : We reflect on such issues constantly, whether it is this particular issue or any human rights issue that we are concerned about within our wide mandate. In terms of leadership, the commissioner group and I have made a number of clear public statements on this issue. I have written to the Prime Minister a letter which I am happy to provide to this committee. We acknowledge that some within the commission would have preferred us to be stronger on various issues. The position that the commission as a group have reached may not always align with the position that some of our staff would like us to take. However, we have consistently called for respect for human rights, including the right to freedom of assembly and, I might point out, the protection of civilians, the provision of humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza and the return of all civilian hostages. This is in keeping with statements by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and with other NHRIs. I would say that we have led appropriately, within our mandate as a national human rights institution, in the impartial way that’s expected of us.

CHAIR: We are due to go to a break now. For the information of those at the table, Senator Roberts has one more set of questions for the Australian Human Rights Commission. Then we will be moving to the AFP. When we come back from the break will only have an hour and 45 minutes to get through five agencies, so I am going to be seeking advice again from my colleagues about who we might be able to dismiss. It is not the practice of this committee to hold people here when we know we will not be able to get to them, but we will see how we go.

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