President’s overview

It gives me great pleasure to present the ALRC’s Annual Report for 2011–12, a highly productive year in which we completed two inquiries—Commonwealth Laws and Family Violence and Censorship and Classification—and began work on two new inquiries, one looking into copyright laws and the digital economy and the other examining the legal barriers to mature age persons participating in the workforce and other productive work.

In our most recent inquiries, the ALRC has been asked to look far into the future, and ensure our laws will be flexible enough to respond to situations yet to be envisaged. Australia’s population is ageing rapidly. By 2044–45 almost one in four Australians will be aged 65 years or older and this will have a significant implication for Australia’s economy with the need to encourage people to stay at work for as long as they are able and willing. The ALRC has been asked to ensure that Australia’s laws and legal frameworks support such participation while balancing the need for people to exercise choice and to be independent. Another challenge is that of the unfolding digital environment and this has been a focus for two other of our inquiries—how to ensure that Australia’s laws stay relevant and responsive to the changing needs of the Australian community and continue to provide system integrity and fairness, while encouraging Australia’s digital economy and innovation.

In undertaking these challenging inquiries, I am confident that the ALRC’s time-tested methodology—anchored in community consultation—its independence from government and sectional interests alike, and its high calibre research and analysis, will ensure that we are well and truly up to the task. The ALRC’s work will facilitate an informed government response to the challenges of this new and unfolding environment and will help to ensure that our legal system can respond appropriately and effectively.

The ALRC’s engagement with the community has continued to be a hallmark of our inquiry process and to provide us with the evidence base on which our research relies. During this time, we have produced three consultation papers and two reports, have conducted 157 consultations and received over 2,400 submissions representing a very strong record of community engagement and participation to meet the government’s law reform agenda. We have continued to develop our e-communications and have produced 29 inquiry e-newsletters, and 4 podcasts along with conducting inquiry blogs and forums to encourage a broader community engagement.

On 8 February, the Attorney-General, the Hon Nicola Roxon MP, launched our report Family Violence and Commonwealth Laws—Improving Legal Frameworks (ALRC Report 117, 2012). This inquiry followed our prior Family Violence inquiry amounting to a major contribution to the Australian Government’s agenda to provide greater protection to the victims of family violence. In this second inquiry we were asked to focus on the treatment of family violence in Commonwealth laws and to identify what improvements could be made to relevant legal frameworks to protect the safety of those experiencing family violence. Specifically, the ALRC was asked to look at child support and family assistance law, immigration law, employment law, social security law and superannuation law and privacy provisions.

The report makes 102 recommendations for reform that, if implemented, will ensure: greater consistency in understanding and application of the law; better identification of, and responses to, the disclosure of family violence; appropriate education and training for decision makers leading to greater consistency and fairness in decision-making of family violence claims; a greater sense of self-agency for those experiencing family violence; and that ultimately, the safety—physical, economic and financial—of people experiencing family violence will be improved.

Our second report, completed in 2011–12, was Classification—Content Regulation and Convergent Media (ALRC Report 118, 2012), the Censorship and Classification inquiry. This inquiry required us to look at: existing Commonwealth, state and territory classification laws and their adequacy in the face of rapid technological change; the desirability of a strong content and distribution industry in Australia as part of the digital economy; and community expectations about classification and in particular the effect of media on children. Drawing on more than 2,300 submissions and 39 consultations, the ALRC heard loud and clear that the current classification system is poorly equipped to deal with the challenges of media convergence, and no longer fits with how people are consuming media content. The case for reform was strong and the report makes 57 recommendations in response to the needs of the new media landscape with the proposed introduction of a new National Classification Scheme to regulate the classification of media content based on a new Act, the Classification of Media Content Act.

With the completion of this inquiry in February, the ALRC farewelled Professor Terry Flew who had been appointed for one year as a Commissioner to oversee the inquiry. Professor Flew’s considerable knowledge of the area of new media policy and practice greatly assisted the ALRC in this inquiry and in deciding the final recommendations of the report. Professor Flew has now returned to his position as Professor of Media and Communication, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology. I want to record our sincere appreciation for his considerable input into the work of the ALRC—work that was also recognised by Queensland University of Technology, awarding Professor Flew a Vice-Chancellor’s award for leadership in 2012.

Two new Commissioners have been appointed to the ALRC to contribute to our current inquiries. In February, the Attorney-General, the Hon Nicola Roxon MP, appointed the Hon Susan Ryan AO and Professor Jill McKeough. Commissioner Ryan’s appointment follows her appointment as Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner on 30 July 2011. It is indeed an honour to have Susan Ryan join the ALRC in a part-time capacity for the ALRC Age Barriers inquiry and I am delighted that, as I lead this inquiry, I will be able to call on her long-term experience and extensive knowledge in this area.

Professor Jill McKeough has taken leave from her position as Dean of Law at the University of Technology, Sydney to take up her role as ALRC Commissioner for the Copyright inquiry. Professor McKeough is a highly regarded academic, researcher and writer with a special focus on intellectual property—including copyright, designs, patents, trade marks, confidential information, biotechnology and indigenous cultural heritage, and has published many articles and books in this area. This inquiry requires the ALRC to consult widely on controversial areas of copyright law in the digital environment and to suggest strategies for improvement. Professor McKeough’s in-depth knowledge will be invaluable in helping the ALRC traverse this complex and controversial area of law.

Our two long standing part-time Commissioners, Justice Berna Collier and Justice Susan Kenny have continued to participate in all ALRC’s inquiries and more broadly to the governance of the ALRC, particularly important as we have transitioned to the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997. Their ongoing advice, guidance and support have been greatly appreciated.

One of the important messages that the ALRC communicated through the 2011 Senate inquiry into the ALRC was the enduring nature of law reform and the fact that law reform does not happen over-night but can often take years for recommendations to be implemented. The ALRC consistently tracks the implementation of our reports and I am extremely pleased that this year has seen some significant implementation of recommendations from our Privacy report (2008), our Family Violence report (2010) and our Genes Patents report (2004). Further examples of implementation are listed in the appendices of this report and provide evidence of the quality and relevance of the ALRC’s work.

I am delighted that the ALRC has once again been honoured in the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) Annual Report Awards, winning a Bronze Award for a CAC agency, for our hard copy report for 2010–11. This is the third consecutive year that we have been selected for an award and I am extremely proud that the ALRC’s commitment to accountability and transparency continues to be recognised in this way. I want to especially thank our corporate team for their work in this regard.

The ALRC always starts any inquiry with an open mind, full of questions and in search of answers. I would like to take this opportunity to formally acknowledge and thank the many people from government departments and agencies, the legal profession, academia, the non government sector, industry and from the community—our stakeholders—who have contributed so much to ALRC inquiries, through consultations, through our Advisory Committees and expert panels and by taking the time to give us their submissions. The quality of the work of the ALRC is a testament to this contribution and helps to ensure that our proposals are sensible, achievable, and that they strike the right balance between competing interests and perspectives, to deliver realisable reform to the Australian community.

I would also like to record my thanks to all the staff for their ongoing dedication to the work of the ALRC, for their professionalism, thoroughness, and hard work. I like to refer to the ALRC legal officers as like a team of elite athletes constantly developing the ALRC’s intellectual capital in law reform. We are extremely lucky to have such a high performing legal research team.

I also want to acknowledge and thank our librarian superstar, Ms Carolyn Kearney, who retired this year, leaving the ALRC after 8 years of service to law reform—and to Australian law librarianship. Carolyn was a legal researcher and librarian par excellence, and it was her grasp of how the information age was developing online and her vision in sustaining and developing the ALRC’s online resource library, that ensured that our legal teams always had, at their fingertips, the most up to date and relevant research resources available. Carolyn could find any article or journal, no matter how obscure, and played an integral role in our inquiry teams. She was also ‘ahead in the game’ on so many counts, spotting things the team hadn’t even thought of yet. Carolyn’s great wit, intelligence and humour also added a lively dimension to many ALRC activities. We will miss her greatly, but wish her a very deserved and exciting retirement.

The ALRC is also fortunate to be able to work with an excellent group of legal interns who participate in our voluntary legal internship program. This past year we have hosted 13 interns alongside another 3 international interns, and I thank them for their interest in the work of the ALRC and their enthusiasm for the processes of law reform.

This past year has been one of consolidation and affirmation of the ALRC’s independent role in law reform. Looking forward, I expect the coming year will be another busy one for the ALRC with the Age Barriers inquiry due to report in March 2013 and the Copyright inquiry at the end of that year. It is important to note that the ALRC is only able to work on those inquiries referred to it by the Attorney-General and that the time taken by the ALRC to complete its reports is stipulated in the Terms of Reference that are issued at the time an inquiry is referred. What the next year holds for the ALRC is, therefore, in the hands of the Government.

I look forward to furthering the Government’s law reform agenda, and will ensure that ALRC processes deliver reports that are independently informed, highly regarded and contribute to the Government’s ability to make informed decisions in the areas we have reviewed.


Professor Rosalind Croucher