Boy oh boy, to be a fly on the wall at any future commissioners’ meeting of the Australian Human Rights Commission. That is going to be fun. There he’ll be, Tim Wilson, grinning perhaps like that insane headshot he has — looking like the guy who didn’t get the job as the pilot in the Flight Centre ads* — and ranged against him six other commissioners, able human rights warriors (and Tim Souphomassamme), each with their own field, from indigenous human rights through children’s rights, disability, gender and sexual discrimination and orientation, etc. Each of these areas are immensely complex fields, developed over decades of policy and legal practice. Attorney-General George Brandis has appointed Wilson — a man with no significant legal-bureaucratic experience, unless you count running a “unit” in the Magic Faraway Tree Institute of Public Affairs — to “rebalance its priorities”. Rebalance is right. Wilson will spend most of his time working out which way is up.
Amidst all this discussion about the appointment of an apparatchik like Wilson to help lead a major statutory authority, no one appears to have acknowledged this signal fact, and what it means for the likely progress of the Abbott government’s mini-culture war. M’colleague Bernard Keane welcomes the appointment and says it’s appropriate. I’m not so sure. The government knows Wilson is in favour of abolishing the commission altogether; and Wilson’s acceptance of the post is an utter sell-out on his part. Wilson’s a classical liberal; class.libs believe rights are relatively few, and originate from universal human nature, blind to gender, race, class, etc. Such rights are to be guaranteed by a minimal state, applying simple laws of maximum universalisation — the first amendment in the US Bill of Rights being the supreme example.
“Human rights”, by contrast, are a concept deriving from social liberalism, which split from classical liberalism in the 19th century, and formed the basis of “progressive” politics. Social liberalism regards freedom as not only “negative” — restraining the state from encroaching upon liberty — but also “positive”, enabling those structurally deprived of power to attain some. The division is the founding one between Right and Left, since the differing economic doctrines of the two formations are really a means to the end of realising those two types of social life. The use of a complex network of rights to redistribute power is simply a successor to the socialist project, a new strategy after the failure of the latter (even though it also includes protections from a capricious state). Contrary to classical liberalism’s desire to restrain the state from multiplying laws, the “human rights” doctrine positively welcomes it. By combining the idea of social categories and multiple modalities of oppression, the generation of new rights is not merely inevitable, but part of the process.**
So effectively, Wilson has joined a rights factory, and is charged with assisting in its smooth running. He has previously written that his new charge should be abolished — and no wonder. A glance at the AHRC’s website indicates a whole plethora of concepts — social justice being the most prominent — which classical liberals do not even recognise as valid. The continued existence of the AHRC as a rights factory serves a political purpose, well understood when it was established. As it multiplies and distributes positive, collective and sectional rights, the social liberal vision crowds out the classical liberal one. Classical liberalism regards the public sphere as an empty space to be regulated to a minimum; social liberalism regards it as criss-crossed with power, barriers, vantage points and troughs, with the role of the state, via the commission, to actively reshape that space.
“Most likely … he will make very little difference to the smooth running of the rights factory at all.”
Abolition of the AHRC is the only step that would move a classical liberal politics forward — which is why the AHRC’s new commissioner argued for it before he got the $320,000-a-year government job. That the Abbott government does not dare try to abolish it — perhaps they will later — is yet another example of the residual victory of the Left over a period longer than covered by the change-over of governments. That the Abbott government does not dare abolish the AHRC is a measure of their fear not of the liberal-Left — though they would be wary of stirring up too much opposition — but also of the multicultural lobby. Though the Right’s think tanks moan and gnash about multiculturalism — by which I mean the idea that intra-social ethnic “communities” can somehow be “represented” by “leaders” — they cow-tow to it as much as Labor do. Every election cycle, the Libs set off to pay court to every shyster who has set himself up as the leader of the Biddleonian-Australian community, wearing strange Biddleonian hats and eating their weird food in the hope of smooth delivery of a bloc of votes. “Community-model multiculturalism” of this type is obviously a travesty of the idea of universal citizenship on which classical liberalism should be based (and material leftism for that matter). Yet it’s simply too big to take on, and its power is one reason why the AHRC remains in place.
How will the AHRC’s process mesh with the Wilson/IPA/Brandis push for “rights” to be reduced to “freedom”, and for “freedom” to be reduced to “free speech” — i.e. unrestrained publication? Not well, one would imagine. The “free speech” campaign is, in the terms the Right has put it, largely a con. The idea that specific state prohibitions are freezing unrestrained speech is an utter con. Indeed, the focus on speech/publication is a false lure, so that the Right can acquiesce to the rollback of other freedoms it is less enamoured of, such as the freedom of assembly and organisation. Both Campbell Newman’s bikie laws and the revival of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner are a standing assault on the common law rights of Australian citizens. But the Right has no great interest in freedom of assembly and organisation, because it cannot be owned, and contests the power of owned speech. Should the bikies and the builders make an AHRC claim, we will watch Wilson’s behaviour with interest.
We shall watch also whether the government sticks to its determination to abolish the 18C provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act, in the face of concerted opposition from what its usually staunch allies, peak Jewish community bodies. Unsurprisingly, Jewish people who have attained positions of power and respect in the community don’t want to live in a society where they can be repeatedly assailed with the word “yid” at every turn, and with no comeback when it gets nasty (and it is pretty nasty in the comments section of Andrew Bolt’s blog at the moment, when he starts to moan about Jewish Australians letting him down). One suspects the government has been surprised by the degree of opposition from these quarters, which have electoral clout. If they duck it, and merely amend the provision, will Tim stick around? Doubtless he will be a diligent and conscientious member. Most likely, like the various rightoids stacked like cordwood on the ABC board in the John Howard years, he will make very little difference to the smooth running of the rights factory at all.
*Other, rejected lines for this slot:
- He went to one of those places where they print out promotional life-size cardboard cutouts, and they wouldn’t let him leave.
- He looks like one of the photos they put in frames that are on sale.
- He is a stock photo model, catalogued under the topic “stock photography: models”.
- He’s a picture on that website you go to when you misspell the name of another, popular website.
- Now on Channel 31, with his very own tonight show, heeeeeeeere’s Tim!
- He is the high school yearbook photo of a man later in the news for being shot by his own men in Iraq.
**To see an elementary confusion of this, check Christian Kerr’s story in The Australian where he announces, Baldrick-like, that Brandis has laid a “fiendish trick” for the Greens and the Left, because he had studied “libertarian” philosophers such as Robert Nozick and John Rawls. Yeah, uh, Christian, Rawls is actually the social liberal philosopher par excellence — indeed, his redistributive social justice model is the philosophical basis for multiple and intersecting positive rights.