What's Going On With Australia's Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson?

On January 29, Australia was placed on the Human Rights Watch list for its treatment of indigenous people, asylum seekers, and the LGBTI community. Where was Tim Wilson when all this was going on?

by Lee Zachariah
Feb 17 2015, 5:30am

Villawood Detention Centre. Image via WikiCommons

On January 29, Australia was placed on the Human Rights Watch list for its treatment of Indigenous people, asylum seekers, and the LGBTI community. On February 11, Australia's Human Rights Commission criticised the government's treatment of asylum seekers, and recommended that a royal commission be launched into the treatment of children in detention.

So where was Tim Wilson — for better or worse the public face of human rights in this country — when all this was going on?

Well, he was out there in the media making public comments in defence of Australia's human rights record.

If you don't know who Tim Wilson is, here's the quick rundown: he was appointed Human Right Commissioner by the Abbott Government after it took office in 2013. He is best known for championing the repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the act that keeps Andrew Bolt from his God-given right of telling Aborigines they're not black enough.

Nailing down Wilson's political stance is harder than it initially appears, because he walks the more-difficult-than-it-should-be line between classical large-L Liberal ideals and toeing the party line.

He was vocal about his opposition to the Queensland "Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Act", AKA the anti-Bikie law, implemented by the now-obliterated and distinctly Liberal Newman government. However, this position was made before he became Human Rights Commissioner, a distinction he over-emphatically made at the time. He's been oddly silent on the issue ever since.

So how does Wilson balance these conflicting priorities when Australia is criticised on Abbott's watch? Responding to the Human Rights Watch accusation that our treatment of asylum seekers, indigenous people, the disabled and the LGBTI community as "draconian" and "unacceptable", Wilson finally spoke up. "To suggest that we're comparable to some of the worst human rights abusers on Earth is simply a joke," he told 3AW.

And this is the central tenet of the Wilson Approach. The umbrage he took is, in itself, not unreasonable. Australia on a list that includes Syria, Egypt and Nigeria? Absurd! Few would agree that our human rights abuses are on the same level as countries in which governments that intimidate and slaughter its citizens are only seen in a positive light once terrorist groups such as Boko Haram or Daesh take hold.

The Wilson Approach is a more elaborate version of burying the lede, because Wilson's remit is not to defend and cheerlead for, as Tony Abbott terms it, Team Australia. As a matter of fact, our Prime Minister responded to the report by saying that the Human Rights Commission should congratulate Scott Morrison, and then tried to remove Gillian Triggs as President of the Australian Rights Commission.

His argument was that the report, which criticises both the Coalition and Labor governments for their aproaches (in case you're wondering why Labor has been oddly quiet on this issue), was political due to its timing. And he's a politician, so that's his argument to make.

But for Tim Wilson to respond to the Human Rights Watch's damning and substantive report in such a defensive manner misses the fact that he's the one who needs to be standing up to the government on its treatment of asylum seekers, its treatment of the LGBTI community, of our chronic mistreatment of indigenous communities. Where was Wilson when the government was threatening to shut down essential municipal services to remote Aboriginal communities?

Wilson, who was appointed by Abbott after the 2013 election, is unlikely to stand up to the government in any meaningful way. Interviewed on Sky News after the release of the Australian Human Rights Commission report, Wilson seemed more concerned with distancing himself from it than addressing its substance.

After decrying the placement of children in detention, Wilson went on to spent more time ensuring that his bosses knew he had very little to do with it.

"[It was] a decision made by the Commission prior to me arriving at the Commission," he said in response to a question that had nothing to do with whether he'd been employed at the time or not. It was a wink and a nod to the Government that he wasn't on board.

He reiterated his lack of involvement directly to columnist Jenna Price, but refused to make any further comment on or off the record about the report. This bizarre exchange is relayed by Price in her Fairfax column in which she suggests it is Wilson and not Triggs who should be fired.

Back to that Sky interview. Take a few minutes to watch it, because it's as clear an indication as anything as to where Wilson's priorities lie.

"[The children] are locked by up the government," says host Kristina Keneally.

"They're administratively detained," Wilson replies, displaying all the compassion of a more sociopathic version of Sir Humphrey Appleby.

Wilson's grinning, let's-all-get-along attitude in this interview, in which he ends by trying to find common ground with hosts, former NSW Labor Premier Kristina Keneally and former Liberal Parliamentarian Ross Cameron, feels stunningly inappropriate given the subject matter. It's not about reconciling Labor and Liberal ideals, Tim, especially given the report says the problem was caused by both sides.

It's all about priorities. For Wilson, who has somehow managed to demonstrate a concern for the wellbeing of children in detention without ever actually calling out the government or Tony Abbott by name, they're all skewed.

As Wilson's ongoing defence of the 18C repeal proves (a repeal that Tony Abbott has long since given up on), he is more concerned with protecting the right to say racial slurs than with the actual reality of human rights violations that the subject of those slurs actually face. Australia is being called out for its treatment of those under its protection. If your response is a weak-kneed "Hey, we're not as bad as Syria!" or "Technically, someone else commissioned that report...", then perhaps Human Rights Commissioner isn't the job for you.

Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah