PM Abbott Takes Oz Back to Year Zero

The appointment of former Liberal Party member and conservative Tim Wilson to the Australian Human Rights Commission has been met with justifiable skepticism from the general public, considering he recently said the commission should be ditched.

Wilson was installed by the Tony Abbot government on Dec. 23, supposedly to bring balance to an institution that by their lights wasn’t doing a good job. And while the appointment might be a concern to more moderate citizens, it appears to be the latest move by Abbott, who came to power in September, to take the country back not to the last century but to Year Zero.

The Abbott-led government is obsessed with cutting public services and jobs in a bid to generate fiscal savings despite Australia’s impressively low debt to GDP ratio. Economic rationalism is only part of the regime change, the other being a full scale paradigm shift toward policy-driven conservatism and the elimination of ‘profligate’ social justice ideology.

Abbott has decimated environmental panels, cut funding for education, drastically stiffened immigration policy and introduced other deeply conservative policies, sharply polarizing the country.In the three months since the Liberal Party took power, according to the Sydney-based daily The Australian, the government’s primary vote support has dropped to 40 percent while the Australian Labor Party's two-party-preferred support has jumped five percentage points to put the ALP in front 52 percent to 48 percent.

Wilson, formerly a paid-up Liberal party diehard, served seven years as policy director at the conservative think tank the Institute for Public Affairs before his appointment by new Attorney General George Brandis, who said Wilson is an outstanding advocate for freedom. His arrival, however, marks a significant departure from the goals and objectives of the current human rights administration, with his voice adding a distinctively radical layer to the diversity of the commission’s opinions.

At the think tank, Wilson maintained that the commission had failed to protect individuals against attacks on their rights by the state, sentiment revolving around article 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act that saw conservative commentator Andrew Bolt charged with racial vilification.

Former boss John Rosken, Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs, said anti-discrimination laws are a way to expand control over what Australians say, hear and do.

"Fundamental human rights like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association have been under attack in Australia by federal and state governments and the Human Rights Commission has stood silent," he said.

Local media reported that other members of the commission feared an anti-bullying program and another on education for older Australians would have to be cut to make room for Wilson’s A$320,000 salary. The commission is to meet this month to decide where the cuts will come from.

Wilson’s stance exemplifies free speech absolutism. By protecting individuals from criticism and offense such as racial vilification, he says, anti-discrimination laws serve to unduly limit freedom of expression. He also believes that plain-packaging tobacco legislation, poker machine regulations, and other restrictions on corporate activities are a black eye for freedom of speech.

Analogous with the underlying theme of protecting corporate interests, but contradictory to absolutism, Wilson last Thursday likened defamation law and protection of reputation to property rights, insinuating that when it comes to freedom of speech the right not to be offended should be constrained to companies’ rights rather than individual rights.

Observers say Wilson is dedicated to providing ‘Liberal balance’ to the protection of freedom for individuals, not corporate sponsors, although he is focused mainly on freedom of speech with his sights set on reform of Australia’s anti-discrimination laws.

Unless freedom of speech can benefit from free-market expertise, Wilson is on the back foot without specific knowledge of human rights or Australia’s international obligations, being picked for the job ahead of his more qualified IPA counterpart.

One of the most important rights commission tasks in engagement with the international human rights system are the four yearly Universal Periodic Reviews.

These periodic reviews depend on the cooperation of states and acknowledgement of their obligations under international law, with NGOs and CSOs acting as watchdogs to assess progress and shortcomings in particular areas of human rights such as those rights that come under certain treaties. The next UPR is scheduled for 2015 and it requires the HRC to independently evaluate Australia’s performance in protecting and expanding the scope of human rights.

As the coalition’s chief mole, Wilson’s evaluation of the endemic human rights issues around asylum seeker policies, migration, racial discrimination, and aboriginal disadvantage are expected to be assessed with appropriate liberal balance. That is, that some human rights are more important than others, effectively neutralizing the universality and indivisibility appended to the core document in the international system, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The addition of a Liberal stooge to the HRC can be triangulated with other worrying shifts away from democratic pillars such as media blackouts and lack of transparency around government policies, the downgrading of access to public services like health, universities, and welfare, and the shrinkage of finance to institutions representing Australia’s global social conscience such as AusAID.

So far coalition policies have illustrated the shift away from norms that attempt to close gaps and generate access to equality such as needs based funding for schools under the Gonski and full implementation of the National Disability Health Insurance Scheme.

Instead the Commission of Audit proposed to introduce an A$6 General Practitioner and emergency room visit fee. Policies and programs that protect the most vulnerable are being demolished in favor of self-funding and out-of-pocket expenses. It’s all about the economic bottom line.

The Human Rights Commission is supposed to be independent, and officially is, as Wilson resigned from the Liberal party and IPA after scoring the sea change as Commissioner. However the Coalition government can add Wilson’s appointment to its program of social engineering whereby government-supported protections and obligations are undermined as paternalistic and people are expected to fend for themselves.

(Lauren Gumbs is a human rights student at Curtin university in Perth and holds a masters degree in Communications.)