Tim Wilson quits, will the Human Rights Commission shrink again?

By David Donaldson

February 15, 2016

Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson’s announcement he will step down at the end of the week to seek Liberal preselection raises questions about how long Attorney-General George Brandis will wait to appoint a replacement — and indeed whether he will seek to replace Wilson.

Wilson (pictured) intends to seek preselection for the Victorian federal seat of Goldstein, he announced yesterday. He said he has held the informal title of “freedom commissioner” with pride, having focused on the rights of the individual and freedom during his time at the Australian Human Rights Commission. Wilson was controversially appointed to the $333,000 per year government role in February 2014 after seven years at right-wing think tank the Institute for Public Affairs.

The government has not yet stated whether it intends to fill the position. It may decide to appoint another commissioner friendly to its philosophy, or perhaps take the option of stalling or asking a current commissioner to double up on jobs. Recently we have seen a long process to replace the sex discrimination commissioner after the departure of Elizabeth Broderick — by the time new appointee Kate Jenkins starts, Australia will have been without a sex discrimination commissioner for seven months.

The government also made a decision not to appoint a separate disability commissioner after Graeme Innes left in 2014, instead giving age discrimination commissioner Susan Ryan the job in addition to her existing responsibilities, saving $1.7 million over four years.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus warned against Brandis taking too long to find a replacement this morning, telling ABC Radio: “I think there’s a concern if the position is allowed to remain vacant for too long.”

The Mandarin has requested comment from the office of George Brandis on whether he intends to fill the role.

Wilson said in his statement:

“It has been an honour to serve in this role. I have had the privilege to meet thousands of people across our nation and directly hear their concerns, work with them and seek to make positive change in our community. It has been the most invaluable experience of my life. I am a better and more experienced person for it.

“I am very proud of the work that has been done. We have boosted the profile and importance of free speech and religious freedom as part of the nation’s human rights discussion. We have made the freedom of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to use their property rights for economic development a government priority.”

In his two years as Australia’s most divisive human rights commissioner, Wilson oversaw the publication of two large reports. He drove a consultation process and report titled Rights and responsibilities, in which he stated an intention to focus in his job on freedom of expression, religious freedom, property rights and human rights education. He worked with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Mick Gooda on consultations around restrictions on property rights making economic development more difficult for holders of native title.

He also put out a consultation report on sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex rights, which provided a broad range of recommendations. This included the establishment of a trans-specific policy stream across the health system to ensure that trans people do not face bureaucratic barriers to accessing healthcare and the inclusion within family and domestic violence strategies of measures to address violence in same-sex relationships and toward trans and gender diverse people.

During his time at the IPA he was critical of the Australian Human Rights Commission for not focusing enough on freedom of expression, while the institute called for the abolition of the AHRC.

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