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  • Tim Wilson understands meaning of human rights
  • By George Brandis
  • 30/12/2013 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: Nat ( 1 article in 2013 )
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ADMITTEDLY, this is the slowest news week of the year, and perhaps I should be flattered by all the attention, but Peter van Onselen's devotion of two consecutive Saturday columns to the issue of my alleged hypocrisy in appointing Tim Wilson as Australia's next Human Rights Commissioner does seem more than a little obsessional.

Van Onselen's latest tirade in fact amounts to little more than a semantic argument about the meaning of the word "partisan".

I adhere strongly to the view that all members of the Human Rights Commission should act in a non-partisan way; their obligation is to uphold human rights, not the views of a political party. That does not mean that they will not have their own political opinions - it would be hypocrisy indeed to pretend that those active in the human rights field have an Olympian aloofness from political causes and events.

But just because a person may have belonged to a political party does not make him a partisan, in the sense of being a spokesman or defender of his party's positions.

Tim Wilson was a longstanding member of the Liberal Party, but his principal role in public affairs has been as a policy director of the IPA1, Australia's oldest and, in the view of many, most influential political think tank which earlier this year celebrated its 70th anniversary. It is, in a sense, Australia's original human rights organisation, since its raison d'etre is to defend freedom - the most fundamental of all the human rights.

More often than not, Wilson has taken a position in opposition to that of the Liberal Party. The list is long, but it includes issues as various as industry assistance, public broadcasting, renewable energy targets, tobacco packaging, industrial relations policy, health insurance, bikie laws and gay marriage, to name but a few.

To describe a person who has been an articulate public opponent of the Liberal Party on so many of the issues which have defined the politics of recent years as a Liberal Party "partisan" seems to me, with all due respect to van Onselen, to be absurd.

The Wilson appointment has produced some surprising reactions. George Williams (a constitutional lawyer associated with the Left) welcomed it, while certain Christian lobby groups (disturbed by Wilson's advocacy of gay marriage) expressed their misgivings.

Even more surprisingly, The Age gave the appointment its cautious editorial endorsement, while The Australian criticised it as an error - an editorial opinion, by the way, at variance with the near to unanimous verdict of this newspaper's letters page. Which goes to show how hard it is to stereotype Wilson's appointment.

But some things never change, like the reaction of the claque of bilious pseudo-intellectuals who constitute what passes for a left-wing commentariat in this country. Mike Carlton, Catherine Deveney, Van Badham and their ilk were nothing if not boorishly predictable.

They and their followers unleashed a storm of hatred and bile against Wilson on social media, the like of which I have never seen. The irony that these people pose as the enemies of "hate speech" was lost on them, if not on others.

More important than the reaction of commentators and social media junkies was the reaction of the professional human rights industry.

While some, including Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, welcomed the appointment, what others had to say was revealing of the task ahead of those of us who are determined to re-centre the human rights debate.

The first Human Rights Commissioner, Brian Burdekin2, opined that "the basis of all human rights law is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights". In a sentence, he captures the error into which modern human rights discourse has fallen: the equation of human rights with human rights law.

Of course, there is a well-developed human rights jurisprudence, based on the interpretation international human rights instruments by various national and international courts. Like any body of law, it seeks to be consistent. But only a narrow lawyer's approach, which regards the interpretation of the corpus of decisions on the meaning of various international human rights instruments as the end of the human rights debate, could produce Burdekin's conclusion that "this is not a matter of competing philosophies".

The human rights debate is precisely a matter of competing philosophies, because fundamental political values are essentially contestable, as anyone with the remotest familiarity with political philosophy understands.

Human rights are not something given to us by governments, let alone by international organisations or by judges. And while the modern jurisprudence of human rights may owe its origin to the 1948 declaration, the declaration is not the source of those rights. Almost two centuries earlier, the founders of the American republic understood better than a whole faculty of human rights lawyers when they wrote the greatest sentence written in English to capture the spirit of the Enlightenment:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

There it all is: that human rights are innate, not vouchsafed by laws; that the greatest of all the rights is to live in freedom and pursue happiness in one's own way; that governments are created by free people to secure their rights, not to decide what their rights shall be.

People who truly care about human rights have always understood that. And nobody understands it better than the new Human Rights Commissioner.

George Brandis is the federal Attorney-General.

[1] Institute of Public Affairs Australia
[2] Federal Human Rights Commissioner 1986-1994


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