Shameless use of tax to fund rights attack

Bookmark and Share Freedom of Speech and Legal Rights Project | Simon Breheny
The Australian 25th January, 2013

The Gillard government's proposed anti-discrimination overhaul - which would make it unlawful to discuss almost any political idea in the workplace - has been slammed by everyone from ABC chairman Jim Spiegelman to Australia's largest media organisations.

But the human rights lobby wants the government to go even further. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission's submission to the Senate inquiry into the draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012, they would like it to be unlawful to discuss any controversial political idea in all areas of public life.

And they would like to see religious exemptions scrapped.

What makes these extraordinary proposals even worse is that the Human Rights Commission is doing it all on taxpayers' money.

The debate over the draft bill has revealed the network of taxpayer-funded organisations and individuals lobbying incessantly for more government interference in our lives.

This human rights lobby includes the various federal and state human rights and anti-discrimination commissioners, university-based research centres and a small army of lawyers and academics.

They fixate unwaveringly on the kind of rights that require the government to do something.

Usually this means restricting certain behaviour. The traditional ideal of human rights concerned protecting our lives and property from government. The new idea of human rights brings government into our lives and property.

The human rights lobby's favourite new right is freedom from discrimination. In its eyes, the right to sue other people for hurt feelings trumps the right to freedom of speech. It simply uses the language of rights as a tool to achieve its ultimate goal: state control over our lives.

The Australian Human Rights Commission uses its privileged position to great effect. The AHRC is funded by taxpayers at a cost of more than $15 million a year, and one of its stated goals is to provide "advice and submissions to parliaments and governments to develop laws, policies and programs".

Not only does the commission want the government to increase the restrictions on speech, but it even congratulates the government on its proposal to reverse the burden of proof for complaints of discrimination.

It is astonishing that an organisation ostensibly dedicated to human rights would recommend that the government scrap one of our oldest and most basic legal protections.

Unsurprisingly, the commission would itself benefit from a massive increase in discrimination claims.

All discrimination claims go through the AHRC first, and it is funded accordingly. Any new responsibilities will require more staff and a bigger budget.

The commission is also the sole provider of an accreditation scheme for businesses' anti-discrimination policies, and it has the power to grant legal immunity to those that sign up.

In recent weeks, AHRC president Gillian Triggs has been quoted in the media saying that the draft bill might go too far. But her comments directly contradict the commission's formal submission to the inquiry, which unambiguously recommends extension of the draft bill.

Its submission fails to mention the significant threat to freedom of speech that the proposed law poses.

Indeed, her comments come only after widespread public outrage over the draft bill. So why isn't the instinct of the commission to protect human rights?

Human rights organisations lobby for government favours as much as businesses do. The only difference is that the public is suspicious of crony capitalism, while the human rights lobby campaigns behind a veil of goodwill.

The relationship is mutually beneficial: the government gets its policies legitimised by support from so-called human rights experts and the human rights lobby gets to expand its empire. Never mind that these experts are funded, if not directly appointed, by the government itself.

Other wings of the human rights lobby have approved the draft bill and called for it to go further. In language that could have come directly from the Gillard government's own communications team, the Human Rights Law Centre entitled its submission: A Fairer, Simpler Law for All. Just how a subjective legal test and a reversal in the burden of proof makes the law fairer and simpler is unclear.

Nevertheless, this kind of support gives excellent cover to the government. Attorney-General Nicola Roxon's recent article on this page demonstrates the kind of doublespeak the government feels it can get away with when human rights experts have got its back. It was full of the usual spin we've come to expect from government ministers.

But Roxon was also knowingly deceptive about how the draft bill threatens free speech. Her assertion that "it is not the case that any conduct that a person finds offensive will be unlawful" is blatantly untrue. That's what the draft bill says. Are we supposed to just hope the Australian Human Rights Commission will dismiss threats to legitimate speech?

As the government looks to restrict our freedoms and control our lives, we should not overlook the role that the human rights lobby plays in the process.

If freedom is to thrive in Australia, this dangerous symbiotic relationship must be broken.