Brandis refills human rights body—demands outcomes, less rhetoric

By Harley Dennett

May 5, 2016

The government has restored the Australian Human Rights Commission’s ranks with advocates for human rights, age and disability rights, but still doesn’t like its focus on minorities instead of political liberties.

When Attorney General George Brandis recently advertised for three new commissioners to fill all the vacant positions defined in legislation, it wasn’t clear if the government was simply toying with the AHRC.

Brandis had, on assuming office in 2013, moved quickly to make the disability discrimination commissioner role part-time, despite it having the highest complaint workload — arguably the AHRC’s primary legislative function. He then appointed a “Freedom Commissioner” to a statutory legacy role most considered superfluous, in a move that undermined much of the AHRC’s work on extant discrimination.

” … these new commissioners will be strong advocates by adopting a pragmatic and courageous approach to promoting human rights … ”

Today, the government has restored the commission’s collegiate-style commissioner ranks to full capacity by appointing individuals to fill the human rights, age and disability discrimination roles.

Dr Kay Patterson, a former Liberal Party Senator and commissioner of the National Mental Health Commission has been appointed age discrimination commissioner, replacing Susan Ryan, a former ALP Senator. Patterson was Minister for Health and Ageing and Minister for Family and Community Services in the Howard government.

Long-time advocate for people with disability, Alastair McEwin has been named disability discrimination commissioner. He is the former CEO of People with Disability Australia and a former manager of the Australian Centre for Disability Law.

Edward Santow, CEO of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, has been named to the human rights commissioner role, replacing Tim Wilson who left to run for the Liberal Party in a safe Victorian seat.

‘Not just a select minority’

Brandis has not let go of his criticism of the commission, or his belief the human rights commission role should focus on freedom of speech, of religion, and of individual liberties. His expectations that Wilson, the former holder of the role, would stand for these areas was public from the moment of the appointment. Brandis made a similar comment in his statement today:

“[Santow] has a very strong academic and practice knowledge of human rights and I am confident that he will successfully prosecute the case for our fundamental political freedoms in Australia.

“… The success of the Australian Human Rights Commission should be measured by outcomes, not by rhetoric. I am confident that these new commissioners will be strong advocates in their sectors by adopting a pragmatic and courageous approach to promoting human rights enabling the Australian Human Rights Commission to become a strong voice for all Australians, not just a select minority.”

For his part, Santow stayed away from the controversy in his statement on the appointment:

“I feel very honoured to be given this opportunity. All of my work at PIAC focuses on the practical protection of human rights; combating inequality and providing free legal assistance for people who cannot otherwise afford it. The AHRC gives me an opportunity to work with a wide range of people to make human rights real and meaningful.

“The success we have had since I started at PIAC in 2010 has been built on the hard work, skills and integrity of my colleagues, the Board, our partner organisations and the community we serve.

“While I look forward to my new role as Human Rights Commissioner, over the next two months, all of my energy will be spent working within PIAC.”

But one doesn’t have to look too deeply into Santow’s background to see where he and Brandis may conflict. His legal research on treatment of prisoners of war led to concerns about Australia’s involvement in US breaches. Santow was also a former director of Charter of Human Rights Project at UNSW, which stood in direct opposition to the Attorney General’s stance that Australia was better off without a human rights charter.

Santow has also cited his Jewish heritage in his understanding that minorities can feel tenuous security that their rights will be respected.

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