Guest Post by Jerome Appleby
An outspoken champion of free speech, Tim Wilson, was appointed by the Coalition Government last December to the Australian Human Rights Commission, a body he once wished to abolish.
Attorney-General George Brandis said that the appointment of Wilson as a commissioner would “help to restore balance to the [AHRC] which, during the period of the Labor government, had become increasingly narrow and selective in its view of human rights”.
Wilson previously worked for the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a libertarian think-tank, and was particularly outspoken in opposing former federal Labor Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s proposed laws to regulate the media.
Suffice to say, the announcement was not welcomed by many on the left, despite Wilson being a public supporter of same-sex marriage and having been listed on the Same Same 25 list of Australia’s 25 most influential homosexuals.
ABC journalist Peter Lloyd put to Wilson that it was hypocritical to join an organisation he had said he wanted abolished. Wilson responded that “the essential part of this job is to make sure the Human Rights Commission is doing its job, and the key reason why the IPA advocated for its abolition is because it wasn’t, and so some would see it as very consistent indeed” (ABC Radio’s PM program, December 17, 2013).
Australia’s left-wing Fairfax press reported with alarm that the Abbott Government had “sent shockwaves through the anti-discrimination and political establishments” by appointing a critic to the organisation and that the decision may lead to cuts to a school anti-bullying program (Sydney Morning Herald, December 18 and 23, 2013).
AHRC president Gillian Triggs was reported as saying that Wilson’s salary would have to come from the commission’s existing $25 million budget.
Fears of possible cuts to an anti-bullying program may have tugged at some heart strings, but any public sympathy for the AHRC’s financial plight must surely have waned when the commission’s bloated $25 million budget figure was revealed.
Brandis was quick to fire back that the AHRC staff costs had soared by almost 50 per cent in the last three years and that it should be able to find the money it needed (Sydney Morning Herald, December 24, 2013).
Triggs may now regret having mentioned the budget at all, as it will no doubt invite closer scrutiny of the commission’s finances — and indeed its entire operation.
Annual reports reveal that between June 2010 and June 2013, the AHRC received a 25 per cent boost to its funding from the federal Labor government, a rate well in excess of inflation.
More controversially, the AHRC’s annual reports don’t just reveal a lavish level of taxpayer funding; they reveal a blatantly political organisation.
For instance, in its 2012/13 annual report, the AHRC highlights that it is a lobby group by stating that it “works proactively with the Parliament, governments and at the community level to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are considered when developing laws”.
That statement also raises questions about whether the AHRC thinks it exists to serve the Parliament, or Parliament to serve the AHRC.
The report speaks of the commission “[s]etting and advancing national agendas” and its support of numerous trendy left-wing causes, such as recognising Aborigines in Australia’s constitution and opposing the detention of “asylum-seekers” (Notice the lack of use of the more neutral term “boat people”, which doesn’t pre-judge whether those who arrive here have actually been persecuted or not).
However, in all of the AHRC reports, there is not one reference to freedom of speech, a cornerstone of modern Western societies.
In the past the AHRC has also publicly supported homosexual marriage — or “marriage equality”, as it prefers to describe it. (To which one may ask: what has marriage ever been meant to be equal to?).
The politically partisan nature of the commission’s campaigns raises two important questions. First, in light of its self-acknowledged lobbying activities, should the AHRC be entitled to receive any taxpayer money at all, let alone the tens of millions of dollars it currently enjoys? And, second, in light of its political role, how far it can be relied upon to discharge its human rights policing role impartially?
The AHRC annual reports also reveal that the commission’s “equality and diversity” practices leave much to be desired. According to its 2012/13 report, 74 per cent of its approximately 134 staff for that period were female.
Would such a gender imbalance be tolerated for a moment if a similar percentage of the staff was male? Not likely.
The appointment of Tim Wilson is likely to be the first of many changes George Brandis will make to the AHRC; but future changes will need to involve more than mere tinkering around the edges.
Giving the commission a severe financial haircut and abolishing its political advocacy role should be the Attorney-General’s next priorities.