Last week on Right Now Radio, we spoke to Tim Wilson, Australia’s next Human Rights Commissioner. You can listen to the interview below, or read the full transcript. To listen to more human rights radio, tune in at 7pm on Wednesdays to 102.7 or head to www.rrr.org.au to stream it live.
Right Now Radio: At the end of last year, [Federal Attorney General] George Brandis announced that Tim Wilson would be Australia’s next Human Rights Commissioner. Until this appointment, Tim Wilson had been the policy director at conservative Think Tank the Institute of Public Affairs. George Brandis has said that Tim Wilson will be known as the “Freedom Commissioner” and Tim on accepting the appointment said that he would advance the government’s freedom agenda. So we’re really pleased today to be joined by Tim Wilson, who’s joining us by phone from Sydney. Welcome Tim.
Tim Wilson: Thank you very much but I do have to start by making a very modest correction. The Institute of Public Affairs is a free market think tank not a conservative think tank.
Fair enough. Now, Tim you’ve thrown your support behind the Government’s freedom agenda, nominating freedom of speech and freedom of the press as your priorities. What in particular do you think are the most important issues for you to focus on when you start your new job?
Well, when I say supporting the Government’s freedom agenda the extent of which it actually overlaps with advancing the idea that human rights are sacrosanct principles which have to be defended. So very much a large part of my focus is going to be to make sure that people understand what human rights are and that they’re elevated to the status that they deserve rather than as they’re treated I guess at the moment as very much a sort of aspirational principles that are discarded. We are seeing that, of course, at the moment in things like with the Queensland governments anti-Bikie laws where freedom of association is just being junked because it has become inconvenient via government so its about asserting what they are. I’ll be focusing particularly on freedom of speech in the lead up to the debate around section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and whether that’s going to be repealed or amended and my view is unambiguously that it should be repealed and that would be a fundamentally good thing for Australia.
And why do you think that would be a good thing?
I think it would be a good thing because it unnecessarily restricts people’s freedom of speech. It’s at the very low bar for the standard which you can … the government … the courts to shut another person down. I’m not against restrictions on freedom of speech when they intersect and conflict directly with other peoples human rights but the idea that people can be shut down for their comment whether it’s in good faith or bad faith just because somebody has been offended or insulted is simply absurd not only of course in dealing with issues across cross-cultural communication … nobody knows what offends or insults another person and not only that. Why should some group of people within the community be able to subscribe themselves some subjective standard where they can shut other people’s commentary down, but that being equally not extended to everybody else within the community?
So your position here is really one very strongly in defence of free speech and freedom of the press and association.
Your former colleague, Chris Berg, has made a really strong case for a Constitutional Bill of Rights. Would you agree with him that these rights that you say you support should also be put into the Australian constitution and protected in that kind of way?
I’m hoping to actually have a discussion about these things, but I am wary of Constitutional protections simply because when people seem to advocate for them they also want to advocate for them with equivalent restrictions like those that operate in the Racial Discrimination Act. The classic example is the Victorian Charter of [Human] Rights and Responsibilities [Act], which basically says you’ve got all these freedoms and they’re all good but by the way you can’t use them when they upset or offend people, conflict with group rights, and so I am open to it but if it’s going to just be distorted and entrench the ideas rather than liberating people’s speeches freedoms then I’m against it.
Tim, I just wanted to clarify something that you just said then. So your concern with instruments like the Vic Charter is that while they adequately protect individual rights they also protect group rights and you don’t see that as a legitimate form of human rights protection?
No, no, what I said actually is that my issue with the Vic Charter is that it says that it’s fine to have individual rights but again entrenches the idea that they’re basically disposable whenever they come into conflict with things like the Bill of Rights, and which explicitly says that with relation to equality before the law, but in principle it’s also true that I don’t really believe in group rights. I believe in individual rights and that’s the very basis of human rights, not the idea that people can have these group rights based on identity groups, which are more open to different interpretations.
Tim, you mentioned just in one of the first comments that you made about the Bikie laws up in Queensland where you spoke about them a couple of shows ago here on Triple R is that one of the areas … where the current system fails in essence that there maybe does need to be better protection of rights so that government can’t pass types of legislation like that that do trample on the rights of both individuals and groups that would seem in that context?
Certainly, I agree that it is a very clear example where free association is basically being shut down for the convenience of government and police. The challenge is how do we actually instill a culture where people know what their human rights are and seek to preserve and protect them. Some people would argue that that’s achieved via Constitutional amendments, but I’ve just outlined my concerns about some of those things and that also assumes the Courts interpret it that way and I’m not convinced that they always do that either. Surely the best way to preserve and protect rights is to have a culture of rights for people to understand what they are and to make governments pay and engage in that sort of activity at the ballot box and through protest measures and to exercise their voice, and I think that that’s one of the things that we’re missing at the moment.
Too many people see an encroachment of something like the freedom to association and just sort of shrug their shoulders and go, “oh well, it just affects Bikies; not only am I not a Bikie, but of course I probably also don’t like Bikies, therefore it’s justified”. This happens quite regularly with groups within the community where people don’t like what they do or what they engage with and so people say “OK”, that violation on their freedom is deemed acceptable whereas I’m arguing that isn’t the case and we need to change the culture to fix that.
Certainly that’s one of the key components of human rights that they belong to everyone and not just particular groups within the community. Tim, I wanted to ask you about … it may be too early to say … but when a lot of the other Commissioners have begun their jobs, they’ve done something like a listening tour or done some research to work out what their priorities should be and particularly looked at significant gaps in human rights protection in Australia. Have you got any plans along those lines to help you priorities issues that you will work on with a limited budget?
Without doubt, this is going to be one of the great challenges. The other Commissioners have much more specific focuses, for instance … age discrimination or race discrimination. Human rights is very broad and I have to make an assessment about where there should be a focus, and where there are threats and where there are things that are not being attended to. If you watch my twitter feed people are regularly recommending things and I welcome those recommendations and people should keep sending them through. But no-one comes into these jobs with all of the education and experience that they need to do them. There is course learning that goes on and one of the things that I am particularly interested in is learning about some of the major issues about asylum seekers and so I’m very much keen to engage in what everyone calls stakeholder consultation, but really just getting out there, seeing what some of the issues are that people are facing within the community, not just in the capital cities but getting out to rural communities, to Indigenous communities, and to a certain extent looking out beyond our borders and seeing what is relevant to apply here.
Tim, you mentioned asylum seekers, and I think this is one of the areas where protection of traditional freedoms and human rights and government policies do sometimes conflict. In the last few days we’ve seen an almost total breakdown of the rule of law in Nauru. Do you have an opinion about whether Aus[tralia] should continue to send asylum seekers to Nauru when they can’t be assured proper legal protection?
Well, this is the challenge. Anyone who is in Australia’s protection, Australia’s custodianship, should be protected humanely and made sure that is done. Part of the problem is that many people in Aus[tralia], you only read these things through filters and what is presented to us and that doesn’t say that things are being misrepresented, only that its hard to get the full picture … and that’s why I’m interested in going … and looking at detention centres as part of my commencement of the role to get a better picture about what exactly is going on. People have a right to seek asylum. There’s no dispute in my mind about that. Whether it’s human rights violation to actually then send them to offshore centres, I’m going to seek some legal advice before I make any more substantive comments, but anyone even if they are sent off shore, they have to be protected and have to be detained at a standard that we would send and deem acceptable.
Well Tim, it’s good to hear that your interested in working on asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch released its report on Aus[tralia] today. For the first time Human Rights Watch has had a chapter on Australia and it begins by saying that Australia’s reputation has been really seriously damaged internationally by the way that we treat asylum seekers, so I think there’s plenty of work for the Human Rights Commission to do in that area.
I’m not disputing that and there’s plenty of work that’s been going on before I was appointed, despite the fact that the previous Human Rights Commissioner basically sat for 18 months. I know this is something a lot of people in the Commission are interested in including me. My interest is how I can make a contribution to that discussion and make sure in addition to other human rights issues in this country it gets an appropriate level of support.