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The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent Mike Seccombe on the state of the Human Rights Commission and what a downgrade would mean for Australia’s voice on the world stage.

The Human Rights Commission could flunk its next exam

Read Transcript

On the campaign trail, Anthony Albanese struggled to say whether he would change the way people are appointed to the Australian Human Rights Commission. In fact, he didn’t know who the current commissioner was.

The reason he was being asked about it though, was because the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions recently threatened to downgrade Australia’s Human Rights Commission to a ‘B’ status.

Today, The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent Mike Seccombe on the state of the Human Rights Commission and what a downgrade would mean for Australia’s voice on the world stage.

 

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe.

 
Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

On the campaign trail, Anthony Albanese struggled to say whether he would change the way people are appointed to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:
“At the risk of creating a headline here, I don't know who Ms Finlay is.” 

 

RUBY:
In fact, he didn’t know who the most recently appointed commissioner was.

 

Archival Tape -- Journalist:

“She's been the Human Rights Commission since the end of last year. Have you heard the recent news about no Human Rights Commission?”

 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:
“No, no, I haven't…”

 

RUBY:
The reason he was being asked about it though, was because the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions recently threatened to downgrade Australia’s Human Rights Commission to a ‘B’ status.

 

Today, The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent Mike Seccombe on the state of the Human Rights Commission and what a downgrade would mean for Australia’s voice on the world stage.

 

It’s Thursday April 21 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:
Mike, how would you describe the position that the Australian Human Rights Commission is in right now? 

 

MIKE:
Well, the Human Rights Commission is Australia's peak human rights body and its safeguards against people being discriminated against because of their age, their race, disability, cetera. People would know it probably best for the 2014 report on children in immigration detention, which was tremendously controversial with the current government. 

 

More recently, for its report on the workplace culture in Parliament House following complaints about bullying and harassment and the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins. And it's what gives Australia the ability to speak on world human rights issues, something that could now be taken away from us.

 

Internationally, the commission is now being threatened with the humiliating downgrading of its status, potentially being relegated to observer status at the United Nations. And domestically, its finances have never been in worse shape. 

 

So in a nutshell, the commission has lost much of its prestige and is basically broke. 

 

And none of this is an accident or unforeseen because for most of the past decade, the current government has sought in various ways to undermine the Australian Human Rights Commission. 

 

RUBY:
Right. So how exactly has it done that, how has the federal government undermined the Human Rights Commission? 

 

MIKE:
Well, there are. There are three main ways I guess politicised appointments is one, constraints on its funding is another. And overt and public hostility to to the activities of the Human Rights Commission is the third, I guess. 

 

MIKE:
OK. And so what do you mean when you say there's been overt hostility towards the commission? What kinds of things are we talking about? 

 

MIKE:
Well, if you remember back to when Gillian Triggs was president for five years, the government and the Murdoch media mounted the most strident campaign against it and against her.


Archival Tape -- Andrew Bolt:
“I think she's discredited the Human Rights Commission, and anyone who thinks that it's not a kangaroo court has got rocks in their heads.”
 

MIKE:
The Australian newspaper alone ran literally hundreds of pieces targeting Triggs over her enquiry into children in immigration detention and other things I might add - but that was the main trigger for it.


Archival Tape -- Bolt Report guest:
“the fact that she's even able to continue this facade of impartiality when we've seen the performance of the commission is beyond me.” 

 

MIKE:
And it got so bad that at the end of her term, Triggs declared that this government was, quote ideologically opposed to human rights. 

 

Archival Tape -- Gillian Triggs:
“We are regressing on almost every front, whether it's women, indigenous, homeless and most, of course, asylum seekers and refugees.”

Archival Tape -- Fran Kelly:
“And why is that?” 

Archival Tape -- Gillian Triggs:
“I think it's partly because we have a government that's ideologically opposed to human rights…”

MIKE:
So she didn't leave much doubt about where she stood by the end of it. 

Anyway, after Triggs, the government replaced her with Rosalind Croucher, a very publicity averse, comfortingly conservative lawyer. Her office decor, by way of example, includes figurines of Margaret Thatcher and the royal family. So you know, you get some idea where she’s coming from. 

 

And under her, it's become clear the commission's finances are not in good shape. It's not fully funded for the job at hand.

 

RUBY:
Right, OK, so tell me more about that, Mike. What is going on with the Human Rights Commission's finances? 

 

MIKE:
Well, a couple of weeks ago, Croucher appeared before the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

Archival Tape -- Rosalind Croucher:
“Thank you, Chair for Hansard, Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher, President, Australian Human Rights Commission…”

 

MIKE:
And she put the internal troubles quite simply, really.

Archival Tape -- Rosalind Croucher:
“The over expenditure on employee expenses is the key issue. That is, we spend more on staff than we had.”

 

MIKE:
Basically, she was saying the HRC doesn't have enough money to properly staff the organisation and to do the work they need to do.

Archival Tape -- Chair:
“I mean, you must be pretty concerned that it's got to this.” 

 

Archival Tape -- Rosalind Croucher:
“I am very concerned..”

 

MIKE:
And while the immediate blame for that attaches to Croucher because obviously she didn't live within her budget, and as a result, the government is now having to bail them out to the tune of $16 million. A lot of blame also has to attach to the government. 


Archival Tape -- Senator Carr:
“Are you funded to meet your statutory obligations?” 

Archival Tape -- Rosalind Croucher:
“I think the answer I gave is an appropriate one that is we are funded, insufficiently to do the full range of functions. And if we are going to be positive…”

Archival Tape -- Chair:
“Sorry, you do need to answer Senator Carr’s question” 

Archival Tape -- Rosalind Croucher:
“We can discharge our functions to a very minimal level.” 

MIKE:
She explained that with the current funding, they could only do minimal activities, and that probably means no big deep dives and explorations of major human rights issues in this country. 

 

And this comes at a time when the commission's annual report detailed the magnitude of of the task of the commission. Complaints were up 35 percent over the year and were projected to increase still further. You know, during the initial phase of the pandemic, for example, there were a lot of complaints related to race discrimination, then later to disability discrimination. Human rights complaints relating to mosques and border closures, etc. So so their workload is right up 

 

RUBY:
So much right now, the Human Rights Commission is getting more complaints than ever from people concerned about discrimination and human rights violations in this country, but at the same time are also hearing that the commission is struggling to carry out its core function of investigating those complaints. 

 

MIKE:
Yeah, it's not great, is it? 

 

And it's worse because about a week ago, following a five yearly assessment by the sort of international peak body of human rights organisations the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, the Australian Human Rights Commission was not re-accredited as an A status National human rights institution. It was warned that unless the process of appointing commissioners was reformed, it would be downgraded to B status, and that means being downgraded to observer status at the UN Human Rights Council. 

 

So I spoke to a number of former human rights commissioners about this, and one of them, Tim Soutphommasane, told me it's a big blow to the commission. 

 

This is like relegation from the Premier League. 

 

And he said it was very sad to see this, that anyone who's a friend of human rights doesn't want the commission to be in the position it's currently in. 

 

RUBY:
We'll be back after this. 

 

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RUBY:
Mike, the Human Rights Commission has failed to be re accredited, and it seems like there is this international concern about the process of appointing commissioners here in Australia. So can you tell me more about that and about the appointments that we've seen here? 

 

MIKE:
Yeah, sure. I guess the most glaring example was the appointment of Tim Wilson as the so-called freedom commissioner without any proper selection process. 

Archival Tape -- Reporter:
“First to Canberra, where the federal Attorney-General, George Brandis has just appointed a director from one of Australia's most conservative think tanks to be Australia's next human rights commissioner.

The new appointee, Tim Wilson, says he'll now be focussing on the promotion of freedom of speech.” 

MIKE:
Before his appointment in 2014, Wilson had worked for six years at the right wing Institute of Public Affairs, which is a sort of, I guess you'd say, incubator for conservative policy and quite a lot of conservative candidates, political candidates as well.

Archival Tape -- Tim Wilson:
“The Human Rights Commission was completely missing in action and need to be held to account for…”

MIKE:
And the Institute of Public Affairs has long campaigned for the Human Rights Commission to be abolished. So here comes a guy from an organisation that wants the HSA to be abolished to be put on the HRC.. 

Archival Tape -- Reporter:
“But doesn't that make you look quite hypocritical to have argued for the abolition of an organisation you've now joined?” 

Archival Tape -- Tim Wilson:
“Well, the essential part of this job is to make sure the Human Rights Commission is doing its job, and the key reason why the IPA advocated for its abolition is because it wasn't.”

MIKE:
As Human Rights Commissioner, Wilson spoke very strongly against quite socialist, unquote notions of freedom and focussed instead on what he called a number of forgotten freedoms. On property rights, for example, he criticised laws that prevent landholders from clearing native vegetation. In relation to freedom of expression, he advocated a watering down of the Racial Discrimination Act. So he took a number of very controversial stands, 

 

Archival Tape -- Tim Wilson:
“I come from an individual rights perspective, we need an open contest of ideas. We need free speech, and the only way to challenge and tackle offensive speech is to have more speech and for people to openly mock and ridicule things that people say that they find offensive.” 

 

MIKE:
Anyway, he was there for a couple of years. He's now a Liberal Party MP. 

 

So he's one, two more recent appointments to the HRC also were made without proper selection process and a Ben Gauntlett, who was appointed as disability commissioner in May 2019 and most recently, Lorraine Finley, who was appointed human rights commissioner last November. 

 

RUBY:
Right. So, Mike, tell me more about those two appointments Ben Gauntlett and Lorraine Finley. 

 

MIKE:
Well, the general consensus amongst former commissioners and human rights advocates is that Gauntlett was a worthy appointment. He's a well-regarded barrister. He's himself a quadriplegic as a result of a football injury, and he has a considerable record of activity in disability circles. 

 

So given this background, in the view of these well-informed observers, it's quite likely he would have been appointed through an independent, merit based selection process, but there wasn't an independent, merits based selection process. Instead, he was a captain's pick by the former Attorney-General Christian Porter. 

 

Finlay, however, is a much more controversial appointment like Gauntlet. She's legally well credentialed, but as has one former commissioner put it to me quite, she's been up to her ears in partisan politics for a very long time. 

 

She was a Liberal Party Women's Council president in Western Australia. She was an unsuccessful candidate for the upper house in the 2017 election. Like Tim Wilson, she came to the job with the backing of the Institute of Public Affairs, and she appeared in IPA ads opposing an end of an Indigenous voice to Parliament…
 

Archival Tape -- Lorraine Finley:
First of all thats patronising but second of all it's a form of political segregation, which is really damaging. 


MIKE:
…and also like Wilson, she's championed religious freedom legislation…

##Archival Tape -- Lorraine Finley:
I absolutely think religious freedom is important and religious freedoms need to be strengthened and protected. 


MIKE:
…so she's pretty controversial. 

 

RUBY:
Hmm. Right. And whatever the political views or political associations, Mike, the real point here is that due process wasn't followed. When these people were selected, they were essentially captain's picks rather than selections that were made through some sort of established process. 

 

MIKE:
Yeah, that's absolutely right.

 

As far as the international accreditation agency is concerned, the political pedigrees of commissioners are not, not the issue. The issue is that there should be a rigorous, independent process for making appointments. 

 

But you know, the two issues are obviously related because clearly the reason the government did not subject these people to due process is that it wanted to parachute people with acceptable views into the jobs. And now this has cost Australia enormously in terms of its international soft power and influence in global human rights circles. 

 

RUBY:
And so, Mike, what is the real world impact of this, then what effect does this have on on our international soft power in the kind of. Influence that we would have, how is it diminished by this decision? 

 

MIKE:
Well, you know, when you think about it, Australia commonly and rightly criticises other nations for their human rights records. You know, think China in the wiggers, for example, and I note that it's made a lot of difference in that case. But but nonetheless, we're a powerful voice in the international community for the observation of human rights. 

 

But now, following this assessment by the international body and the fact that we are not reaccredited as an A status human rights institution and have been warned that we could become downgraded to B status, we've lost a lot of that clout.

 

You know, if downgraded, Australia would only be able to participate as an observer at the UN Human Rights Council said. That would sort of put us on the outer alongside, you know, the likes of Myanmar, Congo, Libya, Venezuela. 

 

And furthermore, those criticisms we might make of other nations are devalued because they can then just point back at us and say, Well, you know, who are you to criticise? 

 

So if Australia were to be downgraded, even being put on notice as we have been, it pulls the rug out from under a central part of our human rights diplomacy. 

 

And the big lesson here is to be careful what you wish for, the current government wished to have a tame human rights commission because it didn't like the fact that it was pointing out its shortcomings on human rights. Instead, it's really only succeeded in further pointing out its own shortcomings on human rights, not only domestically but to the world. 

 

RUBY:
Mike, thank you so much. 

 

MIKE:
My pleasure. 

 

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RUBY:
Also in the news today…. 

 

Yesterday, both New South Wales and Victoria announced the lifting of close contact rules, which currently requires close contacts of positive Covid-19 cases to isolate at home for seven days. 

 

In New South Wales the rules will be scrapped from 6pm Friday and in Victoria from 11.59pm Friday. 

 

There will be no changes for positive cases, who will still be required to complete the weeklong isolation.

 

**

 

And, China and The Solomon Islands have signed a controversial security pact - a deal Australia, New Zealand and the US fear could open the door to a Chinese naval base in the South Pacific.

 

The deal was signed just days before US President Joe Biden’s top diplomats were scheduled to arrive in Honiara [Hon-e-aRa] to warn its government of the consequences of the deal.

 

Foreign Minister Marise Payne stated that Australia was “deeply disappointed” at the signing of the agreement.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, This is 7am, see you tomorrow.

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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