Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs has vigorously defended her handling of a controversial case at the centre of the push to overhaul Australia's racial discrimination laws, taking aim at "misinformation in some parts of the media".
However, in recommendations that are likely to inform future legal changes, Professor Triggs conceded the commission needed greater powers to dismiss race-hate complaints that were "not warranted" and to resolve disputes more quickly.
The complaint against Queensland University of Technology and seven of its students has become a centrepiece in the campaign to reform or scrap section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, with opponents arguing the case was vexatious.
The students were accused of making offensive remarks on a university Facebook page after a non-Indigenous student was ejected from an Indigenous computer lab. The complaint was thrown out of a Brisbane court in November.
A sustained campaign by News Corp newspaper The Australian, and some Coalition politicians, has accused the commission of entertaining a frivolous complaint, taking too long to process it and failing to inform the students of its investigation.
But Professor Triggs hit back at that narrative at a parliamentary inquiry on Friday, revealing the commission was instructed by QUT and the complainant, Cindy Prior, not to contact the students, and that it urged her not to proceed with the case.
"From the start of the complaint, the commission suggested to Ms Prior that she not proceed against the students," Professor Triggs said.
"Ms Prior and the university asked the commission not to notify the students, because they genuinely believed that they could resolve their dispute without the students having to be notified."
The evidence combats assertions by one of the students, Calum Thwaites, and several Coalition MPs, that the commission mishandled the matter. Opponents of change will argue the testimony shows there is no need to amend section 18c.
However, Professor Triggs conceded there had been some errors of judgment. "This was an extremely unusual case. I think we perhaps gave the parties too long to negotiate," she said.
"We were expressly and repeatedly asked not to [inform the students]. I wish we'd rejected the university's suggestion . . . but that's only with the benefit of hindsight."
The case, which was with the commission for 15 months until its termination in 2015, was not representative of the average complaint, which was resolved in less than four months, and did not reveal a systemic problem, Professor Triggs said.
In a new submission, the AHRC told the inquiry it wanted new powers for the president to dismiss complaints that were "not warranted", and that the law be revised to empower the commission to resolve disputes "as early as possible".
The inquiry into free speech is nearing its close and will prepare a report to government on possible changes to section 18c, which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, intimidate or humiliate on the basis of race.
A push to overhaul 18c was a divisive issue for the Coalition under Tony Abbott, who ultimately dumped the changes due to a lack of support. But a backbench push has placed it back on the agenda this year.
However, a poll by Essential Research in conjunction with Western Sydney University released on Friday showed fewer than 10 per cent of Australians thought people should be free to offend or insult on racial grounds.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has indicated he is open to amending the clause, rather than scrapping it entirely. One possible outcome is to replace the words "offend" and "insult" with "harass" and "vilify".