- Australian politics: full coverage
- Nyunggai Warren Mundine: Racial vilification legislation is about how we think about race
The Abbott government has sent shockwaves through the anti-discrimination and political establishments by appointing one of the nation's most vociferous critics to the Human Rights Commission.
Tim Wilson, for the past seven years a policy director of the Institute of Public Affairs, a free-market think tank that early this year called for the abolition of the Human Rights Commission, will be informally known as the ''Freedom Commissioner''.
Mr Wilson, who resigned from both the IPA and the Liberal Party soon after the announcement, told Fairfax Media he was determined to ''refocus'' the commission on defending free speech rather than concentrating on anti-discrimination work.
Attorney-General George Brandis made it clear Mr Wilson's $325,000-a-year appointment was made on both political and ideological grounds.
''The appointment of Mr Wilson to this important position will help restore balance to the Australian Human Rights Commission which, during the period of the Labor government, has become increasingly narrow and selective in its view of human rights,'' he said.
On Wednesday, Senator Brandis said that he knew Mr Wilson was a very strong advocate of traditional, liberal rights, such as the freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
"I think he is the person with the policy background and the intellectual grunt of the public reputation to be just the person to be the Freedom Commissioner," Senator Brandis told ABC Radio.
The Attorney-General also argued that there was no contradiction between Mr Wilson's appointment and the IPA's previously expressed belief that the Human Rights Commission should be abolished.
"People can have a view about whether or not a particular agency or organ of government should exist or not but hat doesn't foreclose them for serving that agency or organ of government while it exists," he said.
When asked if he - like Mr Wilson - believed that Section 18c should be abolished, Senator Brandis replied: "That's something I'm looking at at the moment".
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus described Mr Wilson's appointment as ''dubious''.
''How can Mr Wilson possibly undertake the role of a Human Rights Commissioner when it's obvious he has such contempt for the commission itself?'' Mr Dreyfus said.
''By appointing Mr Wilson, Senator Brandis has sent a strong signal about exactly the kind of blatant political agenda he wishes to pursue as Attorney-General.''
On Wednesday, Labor leader Bill Shorten congratulated Mr Wilson on his appointment.
"It's not often that you can get a job helping run an organisation that you've spent years saying shouldn't exist," he told Radio National.
"I think that shows some admirable policy flexibility on the part of some people," he told Radio National.
Mr Shorten said he was concerned about the issue of "putting people in charge of organisations that they don't respect."
But added: "Let's see how they go".
Greens legal affairs spokeswoman Penny Wright described Mr Wilson's views as ''extreme''.
''The Attorney-General has already made it clear he thinks some human rights are more important than others, including that free speech ought to trump anti-discrimination laws,'' she said.
Mr Wilson, who described himself as a ''an economic and social liberal and a cultural and institutional conservative'' conceded that ''no doubt some people will find my appointment challenging''. However, he did not expect any of his fellow commissioners to resign.
Commission president Gillian Triggs, who has been acting as Human Rights Commissioner since August last year, offered cautious support.
She said although Mr Wilson had been critical of the commission, it was implicit in his acceptance of the position that he recognised the commission undertook worthwhile work.
On Wednesday, Ms Triggs said she expected Mr Wilson to bring ''some fresh air'' to the organisation.
But he had to understand he had to work with other commissioners in his new role, Professor Triggs said.
''This is not the place for party-political rhetoric,'' she told ABC radio, adding the commission needed to be independent of government.
Professor Triggs said the commission could see some value in amending Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
''Of course it’s possible to tweak it to amend it to take bad language out, put new language in that strengthens it,'' she said.
Early this year, in a heated debate on ABC-TV with Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, Mr Wilson condemned the commission as a ''silent observer'' which had displayed a ''massive absence of knowledge and judgment on freedom of speech'' when the Gillard government tried to impose new regulations on the media.
Mr Wilson made clear on Monday he supported repealing the section of the Racial Discrimination Act that made it illegal to insult or offend people on the basis of their race.
Conservative News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt was found to have breached in 2011 section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act after he wrote two articles implying some light-skinned people who identified as indigenous Australians were doing so for personal gain.
Prominent members of the Abbott Coalition, particularly Senator Brandis, have been fiercely critical of the ruling and have moved to modify the section of the Racial Discrimination Act that landed Mr Bolt in trouble.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article said Tim Wilson would head the Human Rights Commission.
The story Tim Wilson appointment to Human Rights Commission stirs controversy first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.