For many, it was a Vandals-at-the-gates-of-Rome moment: Attorney-General George Brandis had just announced that Tim Wilson from the Institute of Public Affairs would be appointed to the Human Rights Commission as a “freedom commissioner”, joining the current seven commissioners who cover areas such as sex, ageing, disability and race discrimination.
Cue outrage from the Left. The Human Rights Commission, the progressive Holy of Holies, would be defiled by an unbeliever, a heathen, who must accordingly be smitten hip-and-thigh. In particular, that the IPA had argued for the abolition of the HRC was held as some sort of profound hypocrisy on Wilson’s part. How can he join it if he thinks it should be destroyed?!
The charge of hypocrisy is a furphy. Given the government is not going to abolish the HRC (I partly agreed with the IPA and suggested some of its functions should be abolished at the start of the year), if anything its opponents have a greater reason to want to shape the direction of the body.
Further, the rage of the Left is wholly out of proportion to the impact of Coalition appointments on key institutions. The Howard government stacked the ABC board with all the hard-Right ideologues it could find and made no impression except to remove their voices from the anti-ABC media chorus while they stumbled through exhausting board papers on digital transmission and ABC Enterprises revenue.
I’m not sure I agree with Wilson on many things, and I share the view that the IPA’s position on a number of issues very conveniently matches the needs of its sponsors, which is why they were strangely quiet on Gina Rinehart’s attempts to use the courts to pursue journalists who’d written unflattering or revelatory pieces on her. Nonetheless, there’s no doubting the IPA has an instinctive distaste for anything that limits civil liberties or free speech, and that’s not something we’re exactly over-endowed with in Australia. If there’s going to be a body like the HRC, it should focus on free speech as well as other rights.
But the commission’s record in free speech is a poor one, and at best it has failed to strongly advocate on the issue. There’s a strong view on the Left that free speech is a lesser kind of basic right because it’s perceived as being a right particularly exploited by the powerful against the less powerful and the economically or socially marginalised. And that is often true. But free speech is attacked as much as exploited by government, the wealthy and corporations (cf Rinehart). You don’t have to look too far to see rights of free speech and a free press under attack in Australia recently from outfits like News Corporation and security agencies.
Moreover, if you’ve kept an eye on the history of the data retention issue, you’ll be aware that it’s almost certain the Attorney-General’s Department is going to try to push it again. Having Wilson in an official position to take up cudgels against a proposal the IPA diligently fought alongside many of us across the political spectrum can only be a good thing. Ironically, it’s exactly this sort of taxpayer-funded advocacy by the HRC that so many of us object to — while it’s there it should be deployed against real threats like mass surveillance.
More to the point, the key thing is that the HRC continues to undertake its core function of providing victims of discrimination with a forum for pursuing complaints. That’s its most valuable and important role and that won’t change, with or without Wilson.