Senator Sarah Henderson – Estimates questions to the Australian Human Rights Commission regarding its work on anti-Semitism

May 31, 2024

As I said and raised before, that wasn’t your approach in relation to Russia and Ukraine. You saw it as your business to call out the shocking invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the impact it has had on Ukrainian Australians, yet you can see no responsibility in calling out the Hamas terrorist attack and the shocking and horrific impact this has had on Jewish Australians, including Jewish Australians with families who are still being held hostage?

Senator HENDERSON: President, are you aware that Hamas are amongst the world’s most horrific human rights abusers, including against their own people, the Palestinian people?

Prof. Croucher: I am aware of their status as a listed terrorist organisation.

Senator HENDERSON: But are you aware of their human rights atrocities, including those on 7 October?

Prof. Croucher: It is a matter of public record. I need to keep my remarks squarely focused on our domestic mandate. Engaging me on opinions about matters of a general kind is not really helpful to answering questions about our domestic mandate.

Senator HENDERSON: Are you aware of the profoundly traumatic effect that the Hamas terrorist attack has had on Jewish Australians?

Prof. Croucher: We get communications about this regularly. Yes, I am absolutely aware.

Senator HENDERSON: As I said and raised before, that wasn’t your approach in relation to Russia and Ukraine. You saw it as your business to call out the shocking invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the impact it has had on Ukrainian Australians, yet you can see no responsibility in calling out the Hamas terrorist attack and the shocking and horrific impact this has had on Jewish Australians, including Jewish Australians with families who are still being held hostage?

Prof. Croucher: The commission did not issue any comments about Ukraine. Commissioner Finlay, who is here, considered it appropriate as part of her independent office to prepare, provide and publish an opinion piece on that issue. That was her contribution to that issue; it was not a commission-wide contribution. You can ask Commissioner Finlay as to her motivation to seek to do that at that time. Our mandate is a domestic one, and I will keep saying that until I ‘invigoratingly’ walk out the door. The expectations of the commission are very high, but our statutory mandate is clear: it is the focus on our communities. The trauma of which you speak is absolutely palpable, an expression I have used before, and it is why Commissioner Sivaraman is conducting the consultations he is.

Senator HENDERSON: So can I invite you now to condemn the horrific rise of antisemitism that we have seen in Australia and the horrific atrocities committed by Hamas?

CHAIR: Senator Henderson, this is budget estimates. We have a flexible and liberal view of questions that we put to the Human Rights Commission because of their mandate, but that is not an appropriate question for budget estimates.

Senator HENDERSON: This goes to the operations of the Human Rights Commission; the question is in order.

CHAIR: I have full confidence that the president will be able to respond to you appropriately, but I want to bring us back to why we are here. We are here to ask questions on budget estimates, which is the expenditure of departments and agencies. That is what we are asking questions about today.

Senator HENDERSON: Chair, the role of budget estimates is to scrutinise the expenditure and the operations of agencies such as the Human Rights Commission, which is funded by the Commonwealth. So, again I ask the president: would you now condemn the Hamas terrorist attack and the human rights atrocities committed on that day, which have had a profoundly serious impact on Jewish Australians?

Prof. Croucher: Senator, I will repeat—so it’s not a new statement—the statement that the commission has made on a number of occasions expressing our deep concern about the rising incidence of antisemitism in Australia. We have expressed deep concern about neo-Nazi rallies, and we have also expressed deep concern about rising Islamophobia and anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism. We are continuing to support—engaging with, as I have remarked all communities in our society—an Australia that is free from racial hatred, discrimination, and unlawful harassment. We have a particular mandate under the Racial Discrimination Act—

Senator HENDERSON: So you won’t condemn Hamas?

Prof. Croucher: The condemnation of the Hamas issue is implicit in all we are doing. With Hamas being a terrorist organisation, we have condemned what is going on and called for the release of the hostages. We are deeply concerned about the impact on our communities. That is our primary focus under our domestic mandate.

Senator HENDERSON: So you won’t specifically call out and condemn Hamas?

Prof. Croucher: Our condemnation of the activities is implicit in everything we have said.

Senator HENDERSON: I will take that as a no. President, has the Human Rights Commission received complaints about—

Senator Chisholm: Chair, Senator Henderson shouldn’t verbal people giving evidence like that; it is not appropriate behaviour from a senator.

Senator HENDERSON: I am not verballing anyone.

Senator Chisholm: You are verballing her.

Senator HENDERSON: I am entitled to respond in the way that I did.

Senator Chisholm: No, you’re not.

CHAIR: Senator Henderson, you are not. It is unparliamentary, in my view, to misrepresent evidence that has been given to you only seconds ago; that is what the minister is referring to. If you have a question you can put it, but you are not here to make statements today.

Senator HENDERSON: President, has the Australian Human Rights Commission received complaints about antisemitism in the wake of the 7 October attacks?

Prof. Croucher: I can confirm that we have received a number of complaints. The number in my head is around 14, but I would need to confirm the precise number.

Senator HENDERSON: What is the scope of those complaints? Have you seen an increase in complaints of antisemitism?

Prof. Croucher: I am unable to go into the detail of those complaints. They are handled under the secrecy provisions that we have. A couple of complaints have been referred to in the public media, but we have received that many, 14. Your question as to whether there has been an increase I would need to take on notice; I am very happy to do that.

Senator HENDERSON: So you don’t have any officials here who are able to give you any indication as to even the number of complaints you have received?

Prof. Croucher: I have more precise figures. My recollection was accurate in total. In the 2022-23 reporting year we received six complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act, under which members of the Jewish community are covered as an ethno-religious group. In the 2023-24 reporting year to date we have received eight. So that is 14 in total. We have received correspondence and a small number of complaints from individuals and organisations alleging that, because they are of the Jewish faith, they were subject to unlawful discrimination.

Senator HENDERSON: In my capacity as the shadow minister for education, led by the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, I have been raising serious concerns about antisemitism on university campuses. I want to ask about your study of racism on university campuses, which the government has asked you to conduct in response to the horrific increase in antisemitism on university campuses. I am concerned that in your media release about that study there was no mention of ‘antisemitism’.

Prof. Croucher: I have to correct one thing. I am getting messages on my phone that it is eight complaints. May I just take that offline and confirm whether it is eight or 14 and whether there has been an increase? I want to be accurate in my detail.

Senator HENDERSON: That’s fine; you can come back to me.

Prof. Croucher: With respect to the university study, I need to defer to Commissioner Sivaraman.

CHAIR: Of course. Senator Henderson, it would assist the witnesses to respond to you more quickly, and probably more concisely, if you were able to direct a question to the president or the commissioner. Just listing your concerns and asking them to agree or not to agree makes it difficult for them to respond. If you have a question about the study or the approach to the media release, that will probably be a more direct way for us to get through the hearing this morning.

Senator HENDERSON: I refer to your media release, headed ‘Commission to lead historic anti-racism study into universities’, in response to the wave of antisemitism at universities. You might be aware of the coalition’s position. We have written to the Prime Minister asking that he back a judicial inquiry into antisemitism at universities, such is the scale of the problem.

CHAIR: What is the question, Senator Henderson?

Senator HENDERSON: I refer to your media release and I ask why, in announcing this historic anti-racism study, antisemitism wasn’t mentioned in your media release.

Mr Sivaraman: Thanks for raising the question. We will certainly be looking at antisemitism in this study. I wrote an article that was published in the Mandarin about a week later, and the first thing I mentioned in the article was antisemitism on campuses. I am not sure whether you have seen that; I am happy to bring it to your attention. So it is an issue that we are alive to and will be investigating. The study is a broad, groundbreaking study into racism in the university sector. It will look at a number of different issues, but certainly one of them will be antisemitism.

Senator HENDERSON: Did you sign off on this media release?

Mr Sivaraman: Yes, it would have been brought to my attention. I have been told that ‘antisemitism’ is in the media release. I’ll bring it up now if you will give me a moment.

Senator HENDERSON: Could you direct me to that? If I have made an error, I will correct that—I am sorry; I have made an error. It will: ‘address all forms of racism, including antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism’. My apologies for that. Can you tell me about the scope of the study? This is a decision of the government and not of the Human Rights Commission. The concern for Jewish students studying at universities is that they need action right now, and this study is not due to report to government until 30 June next year, which is after the next election. So what is the Human Rights Commission doing to urgently address these issues?

Mr Sivaraman: There are two steps at the moment in the study: an interim report in December this year and then a final report in June next year. A study like this requires a significant amount of work. It is in a nascent stage at the moment. It is probably useful if I just step out what will need to occur. The first thing is a contract or a memorandum of understanding of some kind from the Department of Education, which is still being negotiated because we haven’t received the funds to start doing the work. Once we do that, we will have to build a team, which will take time; recruitment will take time. Next we will have to create the expert reference group, which will have to be a group with experience in studying, teaching, and leading universities. We will have to make sure that is a strong group, which will take time as well. Then, before you can survey, you need to do a literature review, because a lot of work has been done examining racism in universities and we need to make sure that we understand what has been discovered and explored before. Once that is done, we can then start building a survey tool. It is not a straightforward thing to survey in universities. You need ethics approval and you need the engagement of all the universities, and there are 41, plus the associated VET campuses. The next issue is that, at universities students aren’t on campus 12 months of the year. They probably are only on campus for about seven months of the year, so you can’t just survey at any given time. All of that means that a significant amount of work needs to be done to ensure that this project is done properly, and it will take some time to build and roll out.

Senator HENDERSON: Are you aware—I don’t have a copy of this but hopefully someone on my team could just print out a copy and table it—of the front page story in the Australian today concerning a professor at the University of Sydney who made a number of false claims about the Hamas terrorist attack? Are you concerned about that sort of information being taught to students?

Mr Sivaraman: I am not aware of that story.

Senator HENDERSON: I might ask whether we can distribute that article. I’ll ask for your response after you have had a look at it.

Mr Sivaraman: Sure. I am happy to take it on notice.

Senator HENDERSON: Can I ask more broadly about the work of the commission in educating Australians about antisemitism, and what programs you have in place to combat racism more generally, including antisemitism?

Mr Sivaraman: In response to that, it’s probably useful for me to say that, as soon as I started on the job, which was only about nine or 10 weeks ago, I appreciated that there had been an increase in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism since October last year. Very early on in my term, in week 3, I started mapping out groups that I should meet with across all of those areas. I’ve now met with about 12 different representative or community groups of Jewish, Palestinian, Arab and Muslim organisations. I wanted to hear directly from them and from community as to how they’re being affected, because if there are going to be solutions I want them to be community led. In addition, we’ve been given money, through the Department of Home Affairs, to do community consultation and then to try to build a program that’s community led and, in addition, a social media or advertising campaign to deal with the increase of racism that we’ve seen. That money was received relatively recently, so we’re building that team and we’re going to do further consultation, but I’d already started meeting with groups before we received that money.

There will certainly be targeted work. It’s an issue of great importance to me, and that’s why I’ve already started my engagement in it. Then, in a broader sense, there are the existing campaigns that the commission has about racism: It Stops With Me and other types of campaigns that are aimed at countering racism. That is now being revamped or reassessed and, hopefully, will be informed by the consultations that are going to take place in the coming months.

Senator HENDERSON: We have limited time, so I’d just ask you to keep your answers as succinct as you possibly can.

Mr Sivaraman: My apologies.

Senator HENDERSON: We are seeing, at universities, children being taught how to shout the word ‘intifada’, and there is a local business in Western Sydney which posted photos online of a Hamas-themed birthday party. Can I ask you to respond, from a human rights perspective, to those incidents and on whether you would call out or raise concerns about those types of incidents in this country?

Mr Sivaraman: I’m not aware of the specific examples that you’ve just mentioned. I do have to be careful because something like that might result in a complaint to the commission, and for me to make a comment specifically about it could prejudice that complaint’s process. In a general sense, I guess that I can say what I’ve said already, which is that the issues, in terms of an increase in racism, are of concern to me. That’s what I’ve already begun consulting with community groups about, and I will continue to do so.

Senator HENDERSON: I’m very surprised that you’re not aware of that. But, given that’s what has occurred, I would ask you to have a look at the relevant documents, 29, 29A and 29B, from my team and come back to me on that. Does the Australian Human Rights Commission support the Prime Minister’s comments around the phrase ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’? He said that is ‘a very violent statement which has no place in Australia’ and ‘could easily flow into actions of violence against communities in our own country’. I’ll table documents 30 and 30A in relation to the Prime Minister’s statement.

Mr Sivaraman: You’ve asked for the position of the commission as a whole on that. I’m not sure whether it should be me or the president who answers that.

Senator HENDERSON: I’m asking you.

Mr Sivaraman: If you want to know from the race commissioner’s perspective then I’m happy to.

Senator HENDERSON: From the race commissioner’s perspective, do you agree with the Prime Minister?

Mr Sivaraman: If we were to look at the implications of a statement like that, we would have to look at the context of when the statement was made, how it was made and who it was made to. Without the context, I wouldn’t want to give a view on its implications under the Racial Discrimination Act. Again, I would say that there’s another very important reason for that. As with the other incidents that you raised, if those matters are the subject of complaints to the commission—they could be; I don’t know—for me to issue a view on them now could very well prejudice them going through the conciliation process, so it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to do so.

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