Politicising human rights — what a terrible thing to do

By | | comments |

So, the Government says human rights has become politicised, eh? Dr Martin Hirst says it's about time.

SO, FINALLY, in 2015 Australia the debate about human rights has become politicised.

It’s about time really, human rights should be a very political question. You know, discussing the politics of who does and who does not support universal human rights should be regular dinner time conversation in most normal families, or pub chatter for the more inebriated among us.

In any civilised country, one that prides itself on taking human rights seriously, the application or removal of those rights should be a matter of political discourse and close attention. Which, sadly, leads me to surmise that Australia today is losing some of its civility.

Our ability to have a sensible and sensitive conversation about the importance of human rights and to debate the failures (or the rare successes) of our Government (of any stripe) in promoting human rights seems to be diminishing.

Instead, the media thugs and Government bullies are out to silence one of the last bastions of criticism of Australia’s uncivil and inhumane refugee policies and to shut down debate about the steady erosion of our rights through the over-reach of surveillance and through the fear-mongering around terrorism.

But who’s to blame for this?

The incivility and thuggishness of our political life is increasing, but whom should we blame for this?

Is it a failure of the human rights bureaucrats?

Is it a problem with our increasingly pliant mainstream commentariat?

Or, is it a direct consequence of the actions of a government intent on shielding itself from criticism?

Can I be as bold as to suggest that your answers to my rhetorical questions probably depend on your politics.

If you’re a Coalition supporter, I’m sure you’ll want to blame the bureaucrats. You know, parrot the line that it is all Gillian Triggs‘ fault.

You know, repeat the lie that as Human Rights Commissioner, Ms Professor Triggs should stay out of politics.

Yes, you will probably want to keep your head in the sand and remain safe and comfortable in your blind prejudice and ignorance, barfing up the talking points prepared in the offices of Abbott, Brandis and Dutton and reheated in the Murdoch press.

So, if this is you — piss off. You are not my audience. I don’t want to talk to you. It’s a waste of my time and yours. Go back to Catallaxy Files where you belong, or get trolling. Coz that’s what you do best.

However, for the better educated and less blinkered, you might enjoy this little history lesson.

Who really politicised the Human Rights Commission?

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and its President, Gillian Triggs, have been high on the news agenda this week because several government leaders have called for her resignation. In fact, the NewsCorpse praetorian guard has been after Triggs for several months, goaded and provisioned by the nastiest of nasties in the upper echelons of the coalition.

Their argument, in a nutshell, is that Triggs is no longer fit for the job, has lost the confidence of the Government and the relevant ministers, and she has overtly politicised her role by criticising Government policy that should not be any of her concern. The attacks on Triggs have been coming thick and fast now since late last year and no prizes for guessing where it started.

Since November last year, Triggs has been criticised for political partisanship, delaying a crucial human rights inquiry, getting her facts wrong and making inappropriate and erroneous comments.
It is worth going back to my news report published on November 22 last year to clarify both the nature of the issues and the timing.

Yep, good old Chris Kenny writing in The Australian this week was keen to remind us that the Triggs-bashing started with the usual suspects. And so it continues this week, in the same place, with the same vindictive tone and with the same lack of attention to detail.

Rehashing dubious claims from dubious ministers. The Australian’s forte (Screenshot theaustralian.com.au)

According to Kenny and his ilk, Triggs has forfeited the right to her role because she has talked critically about the government’s asylum-seeker policy and, most recently (her accusers argue), Professor Triggs has:

  • interfered in Australia’s relationship with Indonesia by critically reflecting on the Government’s asylum-seeker boat turn-back policy;
  • made inappropriate comments about regional issues surrounding the death penalty;
  • insulted the Government by referring to its inhuman treatment of asylum-seekers in detention; and
  • inappropriately slammed the over-reach of the government’s proposed anti-terrorism legislation in a recent speech.

All of these issues are of legitimate concern and involve a rolling back of Australia’s commitment to human rights. They are all political issues and fair game for a human rights commissioner (or so you might think).

But Triggs’ comments have outraged the Government and its loyal Greek chorus in the conservative media. Since last week, it has mainly been the Immigration Minister, Peter “CabbageHead” Dutton who has led the charge against Professor Triggs.

But has Triggs done anything untoward? Not if you actually read the legislation.

Minister Cabbagehead looking rather serious — like an ex drug cop (Screenshot guardian.com.au)

Look at the Act, it doesn’t lie

The guts of Dutton’s criticism of Gillian Triggs is that she has overstepped the line and gone beyond her mandated role in some of the comments she has made and some of the actions she has initiated. But, this criticism is null and void if you actually read the section of the Act setting out the Commission’s functions.

It’s not hard to find and it’s pretty clear.

I won’t repeat it all here, but it’s fair to say that under the terms specified in Division Two of the Act: Duties, Functions and Powers of the Commission, Triggs is well within her rights to make comments critical of Government policy or Government action. Her actions in looking into the detention of children on Nauru (for example) are covered by this clause:

'(f) to inquire into any act or practice that may be inconsistent with or contrary to any human right...'

Speaking out on matters of public concern are covered by this clause:

'(g) to promote an understanding and acceptance, and the public discussion, of human rights in Australia...'

The wording of clauses (j), (k), (m), (n), (o), and (p) along the lines of 'on its own initiative' gives the Commission the power to inquire, report, educate, investigate, act upon and intervene in a variety of situations, including the preparation of

'... guidelines for the avoidance of acts or practices of a kind in respect of which the Commission has a function under paragraph (f).'

Yes, even if the Government of the day doesn’t like it.

I am not going to rebut, chapter and verse, the allegations leveled against Triggs by her detractors and those shamefully attempting to force her resignation. Many, more eloquent than I and better educated about such matters have done so, as a quick Google search reveals.

All I will add is that is a shameful episode that does not reflect well on senior Government ministers and their obedient media acolytes. It also highlights the partisan approach of the Murdoch media, and its willingness to do the dirty work of smearing Gillian Triggs based on background briefings, distorted and embellished “facts” and disgusting personal tittle-tattle.

Both Brandis and Cabbagehead have demanded an apology from Triggs for the comments made in her speech last week. I hope you’re as outraged about this as I am.

As Michelle Grattan and others have suggested, it is Brandis and Dutton who should be apologising. If there has been any “outrageous slur” it is the defamation of Gillian Triggs by these bullies.

Despite the angst, I am glad that this is now out in the open, because the real story of the politicisation of the Australian Human Rights Commission may now have a chance of being aired. It is a tale of nepotism, jobs for the boys and payback, and it begins with Tim “Freedom Boy” Wilson who was appointed to the Commission in February last year.

Human Rights Commissioner “Freedom Boy” sets forth

One of the first dubious acts of a Government now globally infamous for its dubious actions was to appoint a new commissioner to the AHRC. In and of itself, this might seem reasonable. Perhaps one could even mount an argument that a new appointment would strengthen the Commission and ease the workload on its president (Professor Triggs).

But, as with most actions of the Abbott Government, the appointment of the new Human Rights Commissioner was an act of base politics and it was designed to weaken, not strengthen, the work of the Commission.

The appointee was, until his unjustifiable and undeserved elevation, a relatively unknown and very minor player in the politics of the libertarian right wing of the Liberal Party. His name is Tim Wilson. Let’s refresh our memories about Mr Wilson by reading his bio from the AHRC website (I have left off the bit about his partner Ryan because it’s totally irrelevant).

Tim “Freedom Boy” Wilson, seems like a likeable chap…if you don’t mention his Liberal Party membership!

Of course, the biography doesn’t mention his long-standing Liberal Party membership and it doesn’t really paint a whole and true picture of the Institute of Public Affairs either. Wilson resigned the Liberal party (officially) when he was appointed to the Commission, but he still hangs out with his old IPA mates on a regular basis.

Describing the IPA (the Institute of Paid Advocacy) as merely “the world’s oldest free market think tank” and Freedom Boy’s role as merely “analyst” and “policy director”, is a coconut short of a shy. Wilson was always – and, in my view, remains – a political operator on the conservative side of politics.

He is not a neutral, his appointment was not bipartisan, his role is not to berate Government for human rights failures and breaches of “freedom”. Wilson’s role is to provide a figleaf of modest cover for the great dickwaddery of the Abbott Government agenda. And Wilson has duly performed in this role.

He was handpicked by Attorney-General George “Raging Bedsore” Brandis to do a very specific and very political job. That job is to effectively nobble the Commission and to suck the life out of it, while pretending to be all about personal freedom.

However, the bigger scandal in Wilson’s appointment hinges on this clause in the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (as amended).

I call this the “Wilson” clause.

Look closely at 8B(2):

'A person is not qualified to be appointed … unless the Minister [“Raging Bedsore" in this case] is satisfied that the person has appropriate qualifications, knowledge or experience.'

Now just cast your eye again over Freedom Boy’s official (sanitised) biography. Can you see anything there that suggests 'appropriate qualifications, knowledge or experience'?

His qualifications are in policy, trade and property studies — they are not in the area of human rights law. His experience amounts to spending several years as a paid advocate for rightwing politics, the so-called "free market" and conservative political causes.

Wilson’s open homosexuality and support for marriage equality do not amount to appropriate knowledge or experience. Wilson’s major qualifications – and the ones that would have satisfied the smugly smug George Brandis – are his political affiliations and his experience working for the IPA.

But let’s not forget the IPA was openly campaigning for Abbott’s election while Wilson was working there as a senior officer.

And let’s not forget that Abbott and that odious grub Rupert Murdoch were official guests at the IPA’s 70th birthday celebrations in 2013.

And let’s not forget that is was the IPA that issued the infamous list of 70 or more things it wanted the Abbott government to do on grabbing power.

And let’s not forget that Abbott has signalled repeatedly that he was (and remains) ready, willing and able to carry out the IPA policy agenda.

No, it was not Gillian Triggs who politicised the Human Rights Commission, it was the self-serving Abbott Government and its senior leadership team.

I don’t mind that human rights has been politicised — so it should be.

But if the Government were serious about depoliticising the Human Rights Commission, it would not have appointed Freedom Boy in the first place. And if Tim Wilson had a shred of ethics he would resign his commission and go back to doing what he does best — spruiking the idiocy of the IPA.

Thanks for coming.

You can read more by Martin Hirst on his blog Ethical Martini and follow him on Twitter@ethicalmartini.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

Monthly Donation


Single Donation


Support independent journalism. Subscribe to IA for just $5.

Recent articles by Martin Hirst
Peace in Palestine needs us — in our thousands and our millions

The worldwide protest movement against the Israeli atrocities in Gaza and the West ...  
Two chances inquiry into Murdoch media will float: Fat and slim

Last week, the Greens introduced a Bill to the Senate to establish a parliamentary ...  
NewsCorp, Stan Grant and the ABC: Sliding door moments

The ABC and NewsCorp are locked in a co-dependent abusive relationship. As Dr ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support Fearless Journalism

If you got something from this article, please consider making a one-off donation to support fearless journalism.

Single Donation


Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate