The two Tims, the IPA and the future of human rights in Australia

Attorney-general George Brandis has put his imprimatur on the Human Rights Commission with the appointment of the IPA’s Tim Wilson as Human Rights Commissioner. AAP/Daniel Munoz

There is something both utterly predictable and wonderfully larrikin about federal attorney-general George Brandis’ appointment of the Institute for Public Affairs’ (IPA) self-described “classic liberal” Tim Wilson to the vacant Human Rights Commissioner post at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

In a move reminiscent of a poker game, Brandis saw and raised former ALP attorney-general Mark Dreyfus’ appointment of former Labor staffer-turned-intellectual Tim Soutphommasane as Race Discrimination Commissioner. This was an appointment Brandis excoriated in the pages of The Australian while in opposition.

So now we have two young Tims facing off at each other. Wilson and the IPA have been key architects of Brandis’ push to chop the racial vilification provisions (Section 18C) from the Race Discrimination Act, while Soutphommasane has been a defender of the rights under those provisions. What does this all mean for human rights under the Coalition government?

In one move, Brandis has dragged the Human Rights Commission into the modern moment, with Wilson, the valiant defender of Andrew Bolt, circling the space inhabited by the ranks of anti-hate speech activists. Last week, more than 150 organisations signed an open letter to Brandis pleading to save Section 18C. Every one of them would have been red rags to the IPA bulls.

Wilson is well-known to the chattering classes, being a fixture on the ABC and an ardent opponent of climate science and global warming. He describes himself as “currently completing a Graduate Diploma of Energy and the Environment (Climate Science and Global Warming) at Perth’s Murdoch University”. But Wilson was first amongst equals in arguing for the end of the Climate Change Commission, one of the first ten IPA victories with the new Abbott regime.

While Wilson’s education has pushed him towards international development and health issues (he is a strong opponent of health labels and limiting the freedom of people to eat, drink, and get very merry), he is also a favoured son of the Murdoch empire, having been anointed by The Australian as one of ten emerging leaders (2009) and been gifted with an Australian Davos Connection leadership award.

Wilson’s formal position at the IPA was Director of the Climate Policy Unit. He presents then a very interesting mix: someone who argues for policy to reflect political values and be informed by evidence, rather than determined by evidence. He has no problem in arguing that the values he represents and advocates should be placed at the heart of the Australian human rights agenda.

Now, what indeed might that mean?

Brandis has pointed him at the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as his first landing field. The ICCPR is a complex document but it does rub right up against the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). In hailing him, Brandis foregrounded Wilson’s role in:

…thwarting recent attempts to erode freedom of speech, freedom of the press and artistic freedom.

Here, we can see the Andrew Bolt case, and the attempt by the ALP to regulate the media, which ended in a complete shambles under Stephen Conroy’s ham-fisted intervention, though artistic freedom is a bit more obscure.

Perhaps there still exists a desire to confront Kevin Rudd and back Malcolm Turnbull over the Bill Henson affair in 2008? At that time, the IPA (though not Wilson himself, as far as I can tell) came out strongly in support of Henson and even Serrano’s Piss Christ. That should make for an interesting conversation in cabinet.

So what are the classic human freedom issues that Wilson will need to address? Former Human Rights Commissioner Sev Ozdowski – today an advocate of removing Section 18C – brought down an important report on the human rights of children in detention in 2004.

The report had some short-term impact on focusing the immigration minister of the day on his duty of care for minors. This may be back on the agenda a decade later, with the tales of multiple stillbirths and neo-natal deaths among detainees starting to emerge.