No place for racism despite debate over legislation – Human Rights Commissioner
For a man whose appointment as Human Rights Commissioner stirred up heated political controversy, Tim Wilson has shown he is a man on a mission to listen.
“I am very keen to hear people’s views on a range of issues,” he said in a broad ranging interview with AMES.
“I’m going to create a listen tour, as it were, to engage with people,” he said.
Mr Wilson also spoke of his concerns about racism, encroaching big government and Australia’s asylum seeker policies – saying recognising the right of freedom from arbitrary detention should not be compromised in discussions about public policy in Australia.
He also raised the idea of marriage becoming a civil contract as a way of introducing same sex marriages and he rejected suggestions that the repeal of Section 18c of the Race Discrimination Act was an invitation to racism, saying the debate was about the limits of free speech not about the acceptability of racism.
“I want to return and focus back on what I would call traditional classical liberal human rights around freedom speech, freedom of association, freedom of movement, religious worship and of course other important human rights like the first one which is freedom from arbitrary detention – and that of course brings a lot of issues to the fore and shouldn’t be compromised in discussions about public policy in Australia,” Mr Wilson said.
“I see an inconsistency particularly with our aspirations for human rights and how we’ve been treating asylum seekers who have come to this country by boat where we have a situation where there is arbitrary detention.
“Also, currently and in the past we have had a situation around security assessments and the times people are being detained and we need to recognise it is an unacceptable way to treat people who arrive in this country,” he said.
“But what I have concluded is that this is not an easy problem to solve. My view has always been that we have to show a humanitarian approach to enabling asylum seekers to come to this country but equally we have the challenge of not turning a blind eye to the people who are in refugee camps, who are in their own involuntary detention, and who are waiting for a better life,” Mr Wilson said.
He said he supported the repeal of Section 18c of the Race Discrimination Act, which makes it an offence for someone to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person on the grounds of race’, saying the bar was set too low on what could invoke offence.
“I don’t agree with the existence of the provision and there are a lot of people who don’t agree with me on that,” Mr Wilson said.
“But I don’t discount in any way the genuine concerns within the community about the degree of racism and one of the things I’m very strong about is that even if we don’t tackle racism through the law, there are so many other ways we should be tackling it.
“What I’m concerned about is promoting the idea that racism is in some way acceptable; it is not acceptable. This is a debate about the legal limits of free speech not the acceptability of racism,” he said.
Mr Wilson said he was pragmatic about the issue and was happy to hear different views on the subject. “What this whole process is about is having a reasoned discussion.” He said.
As an openly gay man, Mr Wilson considered himself a de-facto LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans/transgender and intersex) commissioner.
“I guess I’m a full-time Human Rights Commissioner and a full-time de-facto LGBTI commissioner,’ he said.
“There’s a lot of work I want to do in promoting cultural change and changes in attitudes toward people with different sexual orientations.
“There is a human rights dimension to the debate around marriage for same sex couples… but marriage is a civil right not a human right although there is an issue around equality before the law.
“Marriage has enormous social benefits – I’m a big fan of marriage and I’m engaged myself.
“But is the best way to deal with it through government? Or should what government be doing is establishing some sort of civil contract which people could enter into and then religious faiths take control and then we resolve a lot of the religious objections – this is how it operates in France for instance,” Mr Wilson said.
“It’s not a solution that everybody will agree with but sometimes rather than just saying here are the parameters of the debate, we need to look back at the broader issue and see if we can find a solution that meets everyone’s objections,” he said.
Mr Wilson said he was comfortable with the controversy created by his appointment; Mr Wilson is a former policy director of the conservative think tank The Institute of Public Affairs.
“Human rights belong to everybody. I view human rights from its traditional values and what I would call a classical liberal approach. In response to that, some people obviously have different views and that’s why my appointment was controversial and I’m not hiding away from that.
“But I think that’s an important basis to inject conversation back into human rights because my criticism of the discussion around human rights is they have gone from sacrosanct principles about the dignity of the individual and their right to live their lives away from government interference and telling people prescriptively what they can do – towards otherwise important and worthy social aspirations about the type of just society you want.
“But when you elevate those things to rights, they become much more inconsistent and you naturally weaken the integrity of human rights from the outset.
“So I’ve said I want to return and focus back on what I would call traditional classical liberal human rights around freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of movement, religious worship,” Mr Wilson said.
Watch the interview with Tim Wilson.