Friday, February 22, 2013

Freedom fighters will save the HRC

The Australian Human Rights Commission must correct its bias towards a left-wing human rights agenda by moving to appoint freedom commissioners.

The ideological mindset of the commission led opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis last week to ask the president of the commission, Gillian Triggs.

At best, the commission pays lip-service to the idea that it needs to strike a balance between old liberal rights — such as freedom of speech, religion and association — and new progressive rights such as the right not to be offended.

But, funnily enough, we only hear about the need for balance when the commission is criticised for its failure to promote the first category of rights.

There is a simple way to overcome this problem — the appointment of freedom commissioners.  Currently, there are five commissioners of discrimination and social justice.  Balance could be achieved by appointing five freedom commissioners:  one each for freedom of speech, association, religion, property rights and the rule of law.

Such a structure could help to achieve real balance within the commission and assist in reversing the curtailment of our most fundamental human rights.

Freedom commissioners would be appointed through the passage of legislation and would have roles similar to those that already exist.

The appointment of freedom commissioners might just put an end to the leftist echo chamber that is the current Australian Human Rights Commission.

The commission has an endemic balance problem.  Rights based on constraining government power are consistently trumped by rights that necessitate government intervention.

In part, this is a structural dilemma caused by the appointment of commissioners responsible for promoting left-wing rights.  The commission has four anti-discrimination commissioners — one each for age, disability, race and sex — as well as a commissioner for social justice.

Ultimately, the best policy to achieve protection of traditional human rights is the complete abolition of the commission.  But if the commission must continue to exist, structural reform is essential.

Triggs appears to acknowledge the imbalance problem.  She believes it has arisen as a result of the legislation that established both the commission itself, and the individual commissioners.

In answering Brandis's discerning questions, she responded that the commission had ''one hand tied behind its back'' when it came to promoting freedom of speech.

That's partially right, but it's also a bit of a cop-out.  Proponents of the current structure of the commission habitually point to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as evidence to support the commission's focus on discrimination and social justice.

Reference to the ICCPR is often used as if it's a knock-down argument because the covenant includes a right to non-discrimination.

But this is a case of shameless cherry-picking.

The same covenant also protects rights to freedom of speech, association and religion, while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a right to private property.  Yet none of these rights are championed by the commission.

Indeed, if the UN conception of human rights really does form the basis for the current functions of the commission, this provides a good argument in favour of including freedom commissioners.

The commission's most recent foray into public debate demonstrates how necessary reform is.  The commission has come under fire in recent months over its response to the government's draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill.  The draft bill poses a clear threat to freedom of speech by making offensive and insulting conduct unlawful in certain contexts.

The commission's written submission to the Senate inquiry into the draft bill completely fails to address the threat it poses to our freedoms.  Worse, its submission calls for even greater restrictions on speech.

It's appalling that Australia's taxpayer-funded Human Rights Commission would actively campaign for increased restrictions on freedom of speech.  But this shouldn't come as a surprise.  The commission was deeply involved in the drafting of the bill and desperately wants to see it become law.

Triggs recently said the words ''offend'' and ''insult'' should be removed.  But, in an interview last weekend, she admitted the sole reason for this concession was the critical public reaction.

Triggs even implied the commission would lobby to reintroduce these words into the legislation at a later stage, stating that the public wasn't ready for such a restraint on free speech ''at the moment''.

This is not a recent phenomenon.  It's a trend.

The only time the commission talks about freedom of speech is when it is trying to decide how it should be limited.

A crude but interesting indication about what occupies the commission's time is revealed by the frequency with which particular terms are mentioned on its website.  Strikingly, the term ''discrimination'' appears 12,200 times, while ''freedom of speech'' and ''free speech'' accrue a measly 649.

And there are more direct examples of the commission's distorted priorities.  In 2011, the commission intervened in Clarke v Nationwide News.

The case, which involved the company that publishes this newspaper, concerned a claim made under the Racial Discrimination Act.

The commission's outline of submissions was explicit on the question of priorities between competing rights.  It argued that anti-discrimination law should be given a ''liberal construction'' and free speech protections ''construed narrowly''.

The imbalance is there for all to see.  And until freedom commissioners are appointed it will continue to advocate against traditional human rights.

Structural reform is the only thing that can save the commission from itself.

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