After a three month vacancy, the government has appointed a new race discrimination commissioner. Chin Leong Tan, a former Melbourne-based commercial property lawyer and multicultural leader of Malaysian-Chinese origin, will commence the role next week. Tan will replace Tim Soutphommasane, whose tenure, which ended in June, frequently saw him at loggerheads with Coalition and conservative pundits.

Career thus far

Throughout his career, Tan generally kept a low profile. Unlike his predecessor Soutphommasane, who was outspoken on social media, Tan has no Twitter account. His LinkedIn profile is incomplete, and very little was known about him outside the multicultural sector until this morning.

Tan moved to Australia in the 1980s and spent over 20 years practising as a commercial property lawyer. In 1999, he unsuccessfully sought Liberal preselection for the Victorian state seat of Bennettswood. Since then, he maintained sporadic involvement with the Liberal party, finally resigning his membership a month ago.

More recently, he served in a number of positions in multicultural bureaucracy. In 2011, he was appointed chair of the Victorian Multicultural Commission by premier Ted Baillieu, a position he held until 2015. Since then, he has been director of multicultural engagement at Swinburne University.

Tan’s tenure in these roles appears to have been largely incident free. Generally speaking, they involved building better engagement with multicultural communities, and helping to develop policies which improve cultural diversity. He was, however, criticised by Palestinian groups for attending a 2014 Jewish community event in support of Israeli soldiers fighting in Gaza.

Avoiding activism 

While his predecessor Soutphommasane frequently condemned racism, and ended his term with a fierce attack on the resurgence of race-baiting and dog-whistle politics in public debateTan appears reluctant to call Australia a racist country.

“If it was, I wouldn’t be here”, he told The Australian.

Tan indicated that he would be more reluctant to publicly call out racism. “I do share a view that that can be overplayed sometimes”, he said. He was reticent to offer a clear opinion on the repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which Soutphommasane fought vigorously and successfully against.

When asked about whether he supported repealing the section — which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate a person based on race — Tan said, “It’s not for me to comment on legislation that’s been there for 40-odd years.”

Tan also appeared reluctant to offer a clear opinion on Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s controversial claim that people in Melbourne were “scared to go out” because of African gang violence.

“I think it’s a question of the public view about his comments, but I think the issues are about crime and issues about support for communities”, he told ABC Radio

Tan’s hesitation in taking any firm stances appears consistent with Attorney-General Christian Porter’s opinion that the role be “conciliatory” rather than “divisive”.

But while he may represent a solidly uncontroversial pick for the Liberals, he doesn’t seem particularly enthused about his new job

“Someone has to do it,” he said.

Peter Fray

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