Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs says there has been misinformation about the QUT case. Photo: Andrew Meares “A shambles”: QUT student Calum Thwaites took aim at the Human Rights Commission and its president Gillian Triggs.
Liberal senator James Paterson said Calum Thwaites’ testimony “deserves to be taken very seriously”. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
The student at the centre of a racial vilification lawsuit that sparked fresh debate about free speech laws has accused the Australian Human Rights Commission of causing chaos and distress in its “poor” handling of the complaint against him.
Queensland University of Technology law student Calum Thwaites told a parliamentary inquiry the commission had consistently failed to contact him or the other students accused of causing insult or offence under controversial section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
He also complained the case was primarily handled by a “junior staff member” – whom he conceded was an approved investigator – rather than directly by the commission’s president, Gillian Triggs, or one of her close aides.
“Neither the president nor a staff member with delegated powers had a hand in the process in the slightest,” he wrote. “[The commission’s] handling of the [complaint] can only be described as, at best, a shambles or, at worst, a breach of statutory duty.”
Mr Thwaites was among a group of students accused of making offensive remarks in a Facebook group after being ejected from an Indigenous-only computer lab. The case eventually made it to court but was thrown out, with the judge deeming there was no case to answer.
In particular, the court accepted Mr Thwaites was not responsible for a post made in his name using the phrase: “ITT niggers.”
But Coalition MPs pushing to weaken or axe section 18C seized on the case and its three-year duration. Under pressure from the backbench, Attorney-General George Brandis established an inquiry, which in a submission from Thwaites heard the commission had presided over a “shambles” that brought “distress and chaos” to the 25-year-old and his family.
He accused the commission of making “no attempt to get any facts beyond those asserted within the complaint”, either through the university or the other students originally caught up in the saga.
“Had there been even the shallowest level of inquiry, in a situation where the student respondents had been appropriately informed about the complaint and allowed to participate in the process, the factual inconsistences of the [case] could have been ventilated,” Mr Thwaites told the inquiry.
A spokesman for Professor Triggs declined to comment as the case is subject to ongoing court action. But last month, Professor Triggs told a Senate hearing there had been a “high level of misinformation” about the QUT case and it would be “very important ultimately for the public to understand this case if and when it becomes possible to discuss the details”.
It comes as the Turnbull government eyes up replacements for Professor Triggs, whose controversial reign ends in July and who will not be reappointed.
Liberal senator James Paterson said Mr Thwaites’ testimony “deserves to be taken very seriously” and called for reform of not only section 18C but the commission itself. “No one who says they believe in justice can read it and fail to recognise change is needed,” he told Fairfax Media.
Mr Thwaites also complained of the difficulty in obtaining legal aid. He was ultimately represented pro bono by prominent Queensland barrister Anthony Morris.
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This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.