Should a high-profile, taxpayer-funded Human Rights Commissioner be doing the numbers for preselection for a sought-after federal Liberal seat while still receiving his hefty government pay cheque?

Reports suggest that Tim Wilson is currently engaged in “World War III” against Alexander Downer’s daughter Georgina for the safe Liberal seat of Goldstein, now that its current member, Trade Minister Andrew Robb, has announced his retirement at the next election.

Wilson has not yet confirmed the reports, but conservative commentator and 18C bosom buddy Andrew Bolt has said Wilson is in, and has his blessing (although Fairfax reports Bolt is backing Downer). The issue was addressed in a Senate estimates hearing this week. Wilson was asked whether he would completely rule himself out of any selections while in his current role, to which Wilson simply replied he would not engage in hypotheticals about what he might do in the future.

The Human Rights Commission directed all inquiries on the matter to Wilson. When Crikey asked whether Wilson had submitted a letter of resignation yet or whether it was appropriate to seek preselection while still being paid as a commissioner, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Commission said they declined to comment.

If Wilson is preselected, it would bring to an end two years of his controversial appointment as Human Rights Commissioner under the Abbott-Turnbull government.

This week’s announcement of Kate Jenkins as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner took months longer than expected because Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected Attorney-General George Brandis’ initial pick in September, and, as a result, the government set up a four-person independent panel to assess around 70 candidates for the position.

While there was a bit of controversy over who was on the panel — with Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs left off the panel — it was a far cry from the selection process that had Wilson appointed to the Human Rights Commission two years ago. According to reports, Brandis simply gave Wilson the job, and no selection process was undertaken. Unlike all the other commissioners, Wilson is the only one who does not have a specific job title — simply “Human Rights Commissioner”. Not bad for a $322,000-plus-$40,000-accommodation-allowance-and-travel-expenses-per-year gig.

He spent $77,763 in expenses in his first year in the job, including $14,000 on cab fares, $3000 for his partner to travel with him, and money on an iPhone, iPad, laptop and standing desk. Labor has intensely focused on Wilson’s international travel while Human Rights Commissioner, though according to documents tabled last year, Wilson’s travel spend in his first year was significantly lower than that of Triggs or former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

At the most recent estimates this week, Labor Senator Jacinta Collins probed Wilson on his $7000 trip to the United States in September and October this year, and the fact that he stopped over in San Francisco for a friend’s wedding on the way, with the domestic flight and accommodation paid for himself. All the travel was within the guidelines, and Wilson took economy travel to the US and back to Australia, when he said that as a Human Rights Commissioner, he is entitled to travel in business class.

In addition to meeting with a number of human rights groups, gay rights organisations and US politicians, Wilson also met with former Liberal minister and New York consul-general Nick Minchin.

Before taking up the Human Rights Commission role, Wilson spent approximately seven years working for libertarian think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, which advocates for shutting down the HRC. He had also worked for the Liberal Party, and was once described by the former member for Goldstein David Kemp as “one of the most effective and best-informed voices we have for the liberal position”.

Wilson resigned his membership of the Liberal Party before taking the job of Human Rights Commissioner, although he was not required to. Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan maintains her ALP membership, but says she has not participated in any party activities since being appointed to the Human Rights Commission.

According to reports, neither Wilson, nor his likely opponent Downer, currently live in the electorate of Goldstein.

Peter Fray

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