The Tories want their “Right to Offend” back.
Australia’s new human rights commissioner, Tim Wilson, has called for the full repeal of the s18C offensive speech provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act and has flagged defamation, online speech and the film classification system as areas he would be considering in his new role.
Wilson was appointed by the federal government on Tuesday to the commission, leaving his role as policy director of the Institute of Public Affairs.
“Increasingly free speech has been pushed aside in favour of laws and regulations designed to stop people being offensive to each other, a steadily expanding corpus of anti-discrimination and defamation law, and the growing momentum towards restrictions on speech online,” Wilson wrote in the Australian on Wednesday.
Wilson, who has also resigned from the Liberal party to take on the role, argued free speech was “being neglected” and he would be focusing on aspects of individual freedoms. He said he supports the full repeal of s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act which deals with offensive behaviour.
“The most obvious freedom of speech issue this parliament will face is the Coalition’s promise to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Section 18C has recently been controversial because of the Andrew Bolt case but, as its supporters are first to say, it has been used against many other Australians.”
But Stephen Blanks, the secretary of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, said Wilson’s focus overlooked more serious human rights breaches.
“They are issues which can be focused on, but they’re not the most important issues a human rights commission should be addressing at this time. Australia has plenty of other breaches of fundamental human rights,” he said.
“The arbitrary detention of people on national security grounds with adverse ASIO security assessments without any proper review process is obviously the most serious breach of fundamental freedom that could be imagined.”
Blanks also questioned Wilson’s commitment to pushing for the full repeal of s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
“Repealing the section altogether would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We need strong laws which prevent Holocaust deniers from going about their trade and other people that want to attack people on purely racial grounds and stir up racial violence,” he said.
The federal opposition and the Greens have reacted with scepticism to the appointment. Shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, said the appointment was part of the government’s “political agenda”.
“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.”
“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,” Dreyfus said.
Greens senator Penny Wright expressed similar concerns and said attorney general George Brandis “had already made it clear he thinks some human rights are more important than others, including that free speech ought to trump anti-discrimination laws.”
Some concerns have also been raised over Wilson’s commitment to freedom of speech in previous comments he has made. In a May 2011 tweet Wilson wrote:
“walked past Occupy Melbourne protest, all people who think freedom of speech = freedom 2 b heard, time wasters … send in the water cannons.”
The president of the commission, Gillian Triggs, speaking on ABC Radio, offered support for Wilson’s appointment, but cautioned against playing party politics with the commission.
“This is not the place for party-political rhetoric,” she said.
In a later statement on Wednesday, Triggs welcomed Wilson’s focus on freedom of speech. “Mr Wilson has seven years’ experience as policy director at the Institute of Public Affairs and is particularly concerned to support Liberal approaches to freedom of speech,” Triggs said.
“We look forward to having him join our team as we continue to meet the challenges of protecting human rights in Australia.”