Peak discrimination body missing in plebiscite debate

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Stepan Kerkyasharian, former president of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board. Photo: Domino Postiglione Chris Puplick, president of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board in the 1990s.


Two high-profile former presidents of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board have criticised the Baird government for abandoning what was once a leading voice for social harmony, at a time when discord over a marriage equality plebiscite and racial tension is at a peak.

It has been revealed the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board has had no board members for 10 months, and only an acting president, after the resignation of long-serving president Stepan Kerkyasharian in January.

The failure to replace four board members whose terms expired in December and recruit a permanent president has been criticised by Mr Kerkyasharian and former NSW Liberal senator Chris Puplick, who headed the board for a decade until 2002.

“Amid one of the most divisive and difficult debates, turning on questions of race, gender and ethnicity, they should be there leading the framework of the debate,” Mr Puplick said.

“I can’t think of a time when it was more important to have a balanced advocate in the community. An advocate who understands the appropriate balance between free speech and freedom of expression in a flourishing democratic debate on the one hand, and the limited rules about vilification and racial abuse and sexual harassment.”

Mr Puplick said political divisions over whether to hold a same-sex marriage plebiscite largely centred on whether the public could engage in a “decent discussion” without resorting to vilification.

The board’s absence is also causing concern among ethnic community groups as one community leader says privately it reflects poorly on the Baird government’s commitment to social cohesion at a time of increasing polarisation and fear.

Mr Kerkyasharian, a founder of multiculturalism in NSW, held the dual roles of chief executive of the Community Relations Commission and president of the board for a decade from 2003. “I consider it important that the board positions be filled and there be a president,” he said. “It is vital at this point in time. It should be there to provide advice and impartial and informed leadership in the community.”

The board’s administrative staff continue to process discrimination complaints and conciliate cases, but are unable to perform the wider role of reviewing government legislation, making policy recommendations and participating in legal action.

The board’s manager of inquiries and conciliation Elizabeth Wing has been acting in the president’s role since January. A NSW budget estimates hearing was told by the Department of Justice acting deputy secretary Amanda Torres that Ms Wing was “a temporarily appointed president”.

Mr Kerkyasharian said it was important to have a permanent president. “It provides greater comfort in terms of the person’s capacity to act impartially,” he said.

Mr Puplick said: “The Attorney-General’s Department has always hated statutory bodies that have independence from them.”

The NSW shadow attorney-general Paul Lynch linked the failure to reappoint the board with the Baird government’s inaction on a 2013 parliamentary inquiry recommendation to change the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act to make it easier for vilification charges to be laid.

Under section 20D, the president of the board must refer vilification complaints to the Attorney-General, but the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution has never prosecuted a case in NSW.

“Failing for 10 months to fill vacancies reflects the government’s disinterest in fighting discrimination,” Mr Lynch said. “They have known literally for years that these positions were becoming vacant. They are statutory positions. The government can’t pretend they don’t exist.

“This parallels the Attorney-General’s promise to introduce legislation to amend s20D of the act last year and her failure to do so.”

A spokeswoman for the NSW Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton said the acting president was continuing to carry out the board’s functions: “We expect to fill the board positions soon.”

The board received 1058 formal complaints in 2014-15 and 3881 inquiries. Disability discrimination (22 per cent), race discrimination and vilification (15 per cent), sex discrimination (6 per cent) and age discrimination (5 per cent) were the top issues raised.