Australian Human Rights Commission

Budget Review 2022–23 Index

Michele Brennan and Dr Shannon Maree Torrens

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is an independent statutory organisation which was established in December 1986 by the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (AHRC Act). The Commission is Australia’s national human rights institution and is situated within the Attorney-General’s Portfolio. Recent findings by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) have highlighted the precarity of the AHRC’s financial position, with the auditor’s report on the 2020–21 financial statements of the Commission advising:

… a material uncertainty exists that may cast significant doubt on the Commission’s ability to continue as a going concern (p. 85).

As explored below, an interdepartmental steering group was created, and a $16 million equity injection given, to the AHRC to address these concerns. However, in the 2022–23 federal Budget, funding to the AHRC is forecast to fall over the forward estimates.

AHRC functions

The work of the AHRC includes investigation and conciliation of discrimination and human rights complaints. The Commission’s work is led by the President and 7 Commissioners:

  • President Rosalind Croucher, who is responsible for managing the administrative affairs of the AHRC (AHRC Act, section 8A).
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar, appointed under the AHRC Act, whose functions include promoting discussion and awareness of human rights in relation to Aboriginal persons and Torres Strait Islanders, including the rights and freedoms recognised by the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (AHRC Act, sections 46A and 46B). The Commissioner also has functions under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA, Part III) and the Native Title Act 1993 (section 209).
  • Age Discrimination Commissioner Dr Kay Patterson, who is appointed under the Age Discrimination Act 2004 (section 53A) and whose work includes research, policy advice and education to remove the barriers to equality and participation faced by older Australians and young people.
  • Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollands, appointed under the AHRC Act, whose functions include promoting discussion and awareness of matters relating to the human rights of children in Australia, including in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (AHRC Act, sections 46MA and 46MB).
  • Disability Discrimination Commissioner Dr Ben Gauntlett, who is appointed under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (section 113) and whose functions include promoting the rights of people with disabilities, including under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and building a more accessible and inclusive community.
  • Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay, who is appointed under the AHRC Act (section 8B) and whose  responsibilities include monitoring human rights issues in relation to asylum seekers and immigration, national security, and technology issues (p. 21).
  • Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan, who is appointed under the RDA and whose functions include promoting an understanding and acceptance of, and compliance with, that Act (sections 19 and 20).
  • Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who is appointed under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (section 96) and whose functions include advancing gender equality, consistent with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The Commission advocates to government and others for the inclusion of human rights in laws and policy. Further work includes providing advice, reviewing laws, and making submissions to parliamentary inquiries. The Commission also promotes and raises awareness of human rights in Australia through education, training, and outreach. Other initiatives include monitoring and scrutinising Australia’s performance in meeting its international human rights commitments and reporting to the United Nations.

The AHRC is focused on achieving the following outcome:

An Australian society in which human rights are respected, protected and promoted through independent investigation and resolution of complaints, education and research to promote and eliminate discrimination, and monitoring, and reporting on human rights (Agency resourcing: budget paper no. 4: 2022–23, p. 176).

AHRC resourcing

Total budgeted expenses for the AHRC are $29.9 million for 2022–23, down from $32.6 million in 2021–22. The budget then continues to fall to $26.7 million in 2023–24, $22.7 million in 2024–­25 and $20.2 million in 2025–26 (Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2022–23: budget related paper no. 1.2: Attorney-General’s Portfolio, p. 136). As illustrated in Figure 1, this represents a sharp decline in funding over the forward estimates period.

Figure 1                AHRC funding and Average Staffing Levels (ASL) from 2005–06 to 2025–26

Note: Nominal budget forecasts have been converted into real figures (2020–21 dollars) using the budget estimates for changes to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) published on page 6 of Budget paper no. 1.

Sources: Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements: budget related paper no. 1.2: Attorney-General’s Portfolio, for 2006–07, p. 363; 2007–08, p. 405; 2008–09, p. 292; 2009–10, p. 215; 2010–11, p. 202; 2011–12, p. 188; 2012–13, p. 189; 2013–14, p. 184; 2014–15, p. 197; 2015–16, p. 193; 2016–17, p. 130; 2017–18, p. 136; 2018–19, p. 95; 2019–20, p. 99; 2020–21, p. 141; 2021–22, p. 137; 2022–23, p. 136. 

The 2020–21 financial statements of the Commission advised:

The Commission made an operating loss of $4.726 million for the year ended 30 June 2021 (2019-20: loss of $5.774 million). As at 30 June 2021, the Commission has accumulated losses of $10.399 million (2019-20: $5.672 million), net liabilities of $5.436 million (2019- 20: $2.525 million) and net current liabilities of $5.327 million (2019-20: $6.407 million). The balance of cash and equivalents as at 30 June 2021 was $3.356 million (2019-20: $2.575 million) (p. 95).

The AHRC received an equity injection of $16 million in Appropriation Act (No. 4) 2021­–2022 (Portfolio additional estimates statements 2021–22 — Attorney-General’s Portfolio, p. 73) to enable it to ‘continue to operate on a sustainable financial footing’. This followed the ANAO finding that, due to operating deficits dating back to 2017–18, the AHRC’s net liability position as at 30 June 2021 was $5.4 million (p. 104). The ANAO advised that, in September 2021, the Attorney-General’s Department had committed to establishing a steering committee, in conjunction with the AHRC and the Department of Finance, ‘to support the development of options and implementation of strategies to transition the Commission to a sustainable financial footing by the end of 2021–22’ (p. 104). The ANAO concluded:

… there is material uncertainty as to whether the Commission will be able to establish a sustainable funding model and therefore whether it will be able to realise its assets and settle its liabilities in the ordinary course of business and at the amounts stated in the financial statements (p. 105).

Referencing the ANAO report, the Australian noted a ‘financial crisis’ at the AHRC including the hiring of an ‘unaffordable number of staff’. The article also states that the work of the steering committee had ‘revealed that underlying funding for the agency was insufficient for it to execute its duties to a high enough standard’.

The office of the Attorney-General Michaelia Cash is reported to have advised that the funding decreases in the 2022–23 Budget are due to the finalisation of time-limited projects, noting that ‘[t]he appropriation of the Commission to perform its core functions is more or less steady over the forward estimates’. The terminating measures that are impacting funding over the forward estimates are:

These measures do not seem to account for the full $9.7 million (32%) drop in funding between 2022–23 and 2025–26.

Funding for Subprograms

The Women’s Budget Statement 2022–23 provides $1.6 million over two years to establish a dedicated industry outreach and support team in the AHRC to assist industry to respond to individuals who wish to come forward with historical complaints of sexual harassment (pp. 18, 25). The Government states that this will support the implementation of Recommendation 27 of the Respect@Work—National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces (2020) which recommended that the AHRC be funded to facilitate a process to ‘enable victims of historical workplace sexual harassment matters to have their experience heard and documented with a view to promoting recovery’ (p. 46).

The Women’s Budget Statement advises that the AHRC will also receive $5 million over two years to develop a national survey of secondary school-age students’ understanding of consent (Women’s Budget Statement 2022–23, p. 12) as part of $40.1 million from 2021–22 for initiatives aimed at preventing family, domestic and sexual violence (budget paper no. 2: 2022–23, p. 67). The intention is to ‘further inform the Government’s work on respectful relationships and national prevention strategies’ as part of the Commonwealth’s commitment to the First Action Plan 2022–2027 under the next National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022–32. Foreign Affairs Minister and Minister for Women Marise Payne has said this and other measures in the package will ‘help address the underlying drivers of gendered violence’.

However, this funding is not allocated directly to the AHRC in the Budget papers and is, instead, included in funding for the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (budget paper no. 2: 2022–23, pp. 66–67; Portfolio Budget Statements: 2022–23: budget related paper no. 1.2: Attorney-General’s Portfolio, p. 134). Accordingly, this funding is not factored into the consideration of the impact of terminating measures on the AHRC’s funding over the forward estimates, set out above.

The Mid-year economic and fiscal outlook 2021–22 (MYEFO 21–22) allocated additional funding of $9 million over four years from 2021–22 (and $2.2 million per year ongoing) to establish and support a new Freedom of Religion Commissioner (p. 210). This new Commissioner position was proposed to be established by the Religious Discrimination Bill 2022 and would have been ‘responsible for reviewing protections for faith-based groups and individuals and reporting on issues relating to freedom of religion in Australia’. However, this Bill was not enacted.

The AHRC also received an additional $1 million in funding in the 2021–22 MYEFO to further implement the Government’s response to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety (MYEFO 2021–22, p. 237).

Stakeholders, commentary, and the media

Prior to the Budget, President of the AHRC, Professor Rosalind Croucher, said that the Commission’s current funding ‘does not provide us with the resources required to perform our statutory functions’ and noted that, to operate within its current budget, it would need to reduce staffing levels by one-third, after a previous reduction in staffing of 18%. 

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus was reported to have stated:

… the damage done to the [AHRC] by the Liberals is a shocking indictment of the Morrison government, and further evidence of their contempt for honesty and accountability. The commission plays a vital role in our nation holding governments to account, and defending the human rights of all Australians, and is too important to be treated as yet another place for the Liberals to wage their culture wars.

Funding for the AHRC to monitor Respect@Work recommendations was welcomed by the Greens, however the Greens believe this development is ‘undermined by broader cuts to the Commission’s budget’.

Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) expressed concern regarding the funding cut with President Kerry Weste saying ‘LHR is alarmed that the budget reflects a clear disregard for Australia’s need to develop improved national human rights frameworks. We condemn cuts to the Australian Human Rights Commission that will see its budget reduced by over one third over the next four years’.

The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Council of Australia (FECCA), a national body that represents Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, commented that a ‘robust human rights framework is essential to safeguarding a fair and just multicultural Australia. Reduced funding for the Australian Human Rights Commission is of significant concern for multicultural Australia’. The organisation further said ‘of immediate concern to FECCA is that this will likely jeopardise the establishment and implementation of a national anti-racism strategy’.

Associate Professor Amy Maguire has said that ‘[t]he budget for Australia’s human rights institution … will fall significantly over the next four years’. She went on to say ‘[t]he Australian Human Rights Commission now faces twin crises of insufficient funding and threats to its global standing’.



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