Of all the decisions of the last 100+ days, under the Abbott government, the decision by George Brandis to appoint Tim Wilson as the Human Rights Commissioner has hit hardest home. I think this act, more than most, exemplifies the ideological undercurrents of the current government. I interpret this as an incredibly symbolic act of the government that will define their political motif for the next three years.
I like to think of human rights as something of an expertise of mine, and there is something profoundly jarring about this appointment. I will not go into detail about some of the more obvious issues around this, as this has already been reported: including his former role with the Institute for Public Affairs and its desire to abolish the commission; including the underlying antagonism between Wilson and the President of the Commission Professor Gillian Triggs (having met and interacted with both Wilson and Triggs, my read of that dialogue hints at a deeper animosity). I’m not even particularly bothered by his politics in a broad sense, and I will visit that idea later on.
Such a model will only serve to entrench those behaviours, and push the state and its use of force more towards an oppressive model of governance. It is an act of omission rather than commission.
Serving the State or the People
What I am most dismayed about is this one statement: “I am looking forward to the challenge of reasserting the importance of human rights and advancing the government’s freedom agenda,” made by him in this interview. In that one statement he has revealed a significant disconnection between how he understands the role and one of the nominal functions of that office.
The reason that this should be worrying is because human rights are principally doctrines of international law. They emerged because they sought to curtail the gross abuse of state power over the lives of their citizens in response to the horrors of the genocides of World War II. They are designed to keep a state government to account and to draw a line around what they can and cannot do towards their subjects. Pursuing the government’s agenda, and keeping the government in check are mutually exclusive tasks because they constitute a conflict of interest. So in that one statement, Wilson is effectively saying that he thinks his obligations are more to the state than they are to the people.
When questioned by Naomi Woodley about his recent appointment and his position on asylum seekers being detained in Manus Island and Papua New Guinea, he effectively brushed off the question and instead asserted his intention to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. In that one statement he effectively noted that his first interests were not towards the thousands of people enduring inhumane living conditions, but seeks to support the interests of public officials who have reasonable levels of power to begin with. It is a clear example of his particular predilections aligning more with the interests of the governing elite than challenging the regimes they create.
It is a clear example of his particular predilections aligning more with the interests of the governing elite than challenging the regimes they create.
This is indicative of a government that is driven by its ideological assumptions. It has no interest in moderating its agenda because it seeks to profoundly change the political landscape to match the vision of its utopia. Time and time again, we are seeing the politics of minimalist government and retreat from the market, all in the name of waste cutting and freedom. It might be okay for an opposition to adhere strongly to its ideological guns, if only to challenge the government. However, it is a perilous position for a government to adopt because they must represent the entirety of the public, not just the ones that voted for them.
The reason this is very concerning is because states remain one of the most powerful institutions within modern society. They maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and so its notion of justice will often see how that state structures its many organs to maintain and provide for justice. The use of force in the Australian context defaults typically to police powers, and the limitations of their powers
Brandis has effectively stated that the appointment was specifically to change the politics of the commission, concerned that it had narrowed its agenda significantly. He noted that there would need to be an emphasis on the freedom to speech and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). There was no mention of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This is not surprising but it is troubling.
The ICCPR and the ICESCR are designed to be two halves of the same whole. The former is a doctrine designed to vaunt individual freedoms while the latter is a document designed to direct states towards providing the necessary welfare to achieve those rights. They are in fact the manifestation of the ideologies of the USA and the USSR brought together to create a more holistic doctrine of rights alongside the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (together, all three are considered to be the International Bill of Human Rights).
It is entirely ironic that Brandis is touting Wilson because he will expand the agenda of the commission only by focusing it on one half of the discussion of rights. A commission that vaunt the ICCPR would emphasise the rights to physical integrity (right to life, freedom from torture, and slavery); rights of justice (presumption of innocence, procedural fairness, habeus corpus); individual liberties (freedom of movement, religion, thought, speech, assembly, association); and political rights. However, a commission that then also ignores or omits the ICESCR would overlook labour rights, social security, rights to family life (children’s rights, parental rights, and reproductive rights), standards of living (clothing, food, shelter, and water), public health, public education, and the right to participate in public life (art, culture, and science).
This is the classical libertarian playbook, promising freedom from unwanted state intervention and the freedom to starve. It is a paradise fit for become a paradise fit for Ayn Rand or Gina Rineheart.
Police Powers and Human Rights
Any rights-based organisation that aligns itself with the state tend towards a view that the role of government has a role of keeping the peace and not interfering with the lives of its private citizens. Libertarian visions of justice usually default to Nozick’s vision of the night-watchman state. It is a view that suggests that the proper use of the state monopoly on force must withdraw from the private affairs of people, meaning that the state should only interfere to restore the peace, to prevent violence, and to enforce the private contractual arrangements between its citizens.
Putting aside the issues of disproportionate bargaining capacity of individuals and corporations (or even powerful people), there is a very worrying issue in relation how a libertarian view would frame police powers, being solely towards the maintenance of law and order. Such a view would emphasise the role of the police as a para-military force, designed to subdue public dissent in the name of public order; particularly where that disorder interferes with the market. In such a situation, police powers are emphasise in any type of public action deemed disruptive, such as curtailing rights to protest in Tasmania, police breaking union blockades in Victoria, and police brutality at Mardi Gras in NSW. Not to mention Wilson’s attitudes on the Occupy Movement and their right to speech.
I have already spoken before about the distinctions between acts that are corrupt and acts that are oppressive in the context of police culture. A human rights commission that is shifted towards a more ‘law and order’ model of police culture, rather than a ‘police service’ type of model will be more permissible of patterns of violent behaviour as being acceptable in the name of the public interest. Such a model will only serve to entrench those behaviours, and push the state and its use of force more towards an oppressive model of governance. It is an act of omission rather than commission.