Internal documents obtained under Freedom of Information from the Human Rights Commission show that it did not tell the students they were accused of racial hatred nor engage them in any way for the 14 months from when a complaint under section 18C was lodged until just before a ‘conciliation conference’ was held in Brisbane.
Senior commission staff have admitted in formal legal responses for an ongoing independent investigation into their conduct in the Queensland University of Technology case that the students were not told anything by the commission until late July 2015 — 14 months after the complaint was lodged by QUT staffer Cindy Prior over some Facebook posts.
But in an interview with Fairfax Media yesterday and on the ABC’s 7.30 last night, Prof Triggs made no mention of the students being left unaware of the case, and she claimed that the commission was engaging with the students ‘in good faith’ in the period.
She told Fairfax Media: “We kept on with it because we had every belief in the university and the students and Ms (Cindy) Prior (the complainant) that they were acting in good and faith and would conciliate. After twelve or thirteen months, it became very clear that we could not conciliate and therefore we terminated it, which allowed the parties to go to court if they wanted to.”
She told 7.30’s Leigh Sales: “On that particular matter … what we did was do what we normally do which is investigate the facts, get a sense of what each of the parties is saying and then attempt to conciliate the matter.
“And in good faith we tried for 13 or 14 months. I think this one was difficult because the parties took different points of view. There were a number of students that had said different things and so the issues in relation to each of them was different.”
The claims by Professor Triggs in the media that the students were being engaged by the commission are directly contradicted by the internal documents and by the human rights body’s own admissions of it not contacting the students until just days before the conciliation conference, which was scheduled without the students knowing anything about it or the complaint against them. In late July 2015, the university started contacting the students despite this being the job of the commission.
One of the students involved in the case, Calum Thwaites, told The Australian today: “They never had any contact with us. I never received one piece of correspondence from the commission. There is absolutely no truth in what she said about that last night on 7.30 and to Fairfax Media. She was claiming that the students were being consulted from the start by the commission and that there was this ‘good faith’ dialogue but that is completely false.
“How can there by anything done in good faith when we don’t know there is even a complaint against us for 14 months, and only hear about it when they are about to start a conciliation conference with Cindy Prior and the university?
“The commission itself has admitted in its own documents in response to our complaint that we were not told.
“Professor Triggs needs to admit that she has been misleading the public on this. The documents do not lie and they are the commission’s own internal documents and their legal letters.”
The internal documents include a contemporaneous diary note by a commissioner officer managing the racial hatred complaint, showing that with less than a week before the conciliation conference she told QUT’s solicitor “it would not be possible to postpone” it; and that QUT should have contacted the students; and that “if a student is notified and wants to attend next week, they will have to make time”.
There were seven named students in the complaint, none of whom were told of the existence of the racial hatred case until a few days before the conciliation conference. Two of the seven who attended have said they felt excluded from the event — “that the only form of negotiated settlement which (the commission’s officer) was interested in discussing was a settlement between QUT and Ms Prior”. The next day, the commission’s staff wrote to Ms Prior’s solicitor thanking her for participating.
“No such thanks were conveyed to either of the two students who attended,’’ said their Brisbane lawyer, Tony Morris, QC.
Mr Morris told a Senate committee last month after it heard from Prof Triggs about the commission’s role in18C cases: “Any attempt to conciliate typically involves little more than blackmailing the respondents into making a substantial cash payment to the complainant, because it is cheaper to do so than to face the prospect of proceedings in the Federal Court or the Federal Circuit Court, especially if the proceedings are likely to lead to adverse publicity …”