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Cabal of human rights fantasists serves no purpose

By Gary Johns - posted Thursday, 17 November 2016

Poor old Tim Soutphommasane of the Australian Human Rights Commission, touting for business only to have the oppressed and offended pull out. The last of three complainants against the much-maligned Bill Leak cartoon have withdrawn their complaint. Apparently, not so offended after all.

Alas, the greatest threat to free speech remains: the commission itself. It houses a cabal of human rights fantasists who aim to override the law in the name of a self-defined greater good. But don’t blame them; blame the governments too weak to rub them out. The commission undermines the authority of governments and courts that would give short shrift to much of what the commissioners regard as their meal ticket.

In the cause of free speech, and the reassertion of the primacy of the parliament and the courts, Malcolm Turnbull should kill the commission. As for complainants, there is nothing the AHRC does that cannot be done, formally or informally, by members of parliament, the media, the courts or a host of lesser tribunals that operate around work, school, medical services, sport, church and so on. The “offended” have plenty of venues for complaint.


It is not only the waffling human rights laws the commission gets to “administer” but also the sociological fact commissions have a habit of attracting a specific type of candidate. They breed a club mentality. No more so than the AHRC.

In 1987, Marcus Einfeld, commission president (1986-90), and latterly guest of Her Majesty’s prisons (sentenced in 2009 to three years for perjury and for attempting to pervert the course of justice) addressed a parliamentary committee at old Parliament House, Canberra. I was present, as was John Howard, leader of the opposition, and I vividly remember Howard making a firm promise that if he ever came to power, he would abolish the commission, established in 1986. Alas, he did not.

Ronald Wilson, commission president 1990-98, ran the so-called stolen generations inquiry, later to admit that he failed to test any evidence brought before the inquiry. He and Mick Dodson, who was Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, found that taking children was “genocide”.

My colleague Ron Brunton accurately described the inquiry as “one of the most intellectually and morally irresponsible reports to be presented to an Australian government in recent years”.

John von Doussa, commission president 2003-08, presided over the 2001 action by the developers of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge in Goolwa, South Australia, to recover their costs after activists tried to use Aboriginal custom to stop them. Von Doussa was about the only person in Australia who did not believe the secret, sacred women’s business, was a recent invention. He was a good fit for the commission.

Gillian Triggs has well and truly worn out her welcome but appears not to have the presence of mind to resign and save further embarrassment. In any event, her contract ends soon.


The government should take the opportunity to close down the whole show. Failing that, it should be gunning for section 18C and commission powers.

In 1994, along with Jim Snow and Graham Campbell, I voted in caucus against section 18C, the “racial hatred” amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act. Unfortunately, the rest of the caucus were asleep, and this appalling piece of legislation passed.

On Monday, March 4, 1996, following my defeat in Petrie and the fall of the Keating government, I wrote in The Age newspaper that “the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission acts as ‘judge, jury and hangman’ on whatever issue it or its publicity-hungry spokespeople want to raise”. I have on numerous occasions called for its abolition.

I understand that at least one senator is drafting a bill to abolish the commission. Should the bill get into the Senate it would place pressure on the Prime Minister to move beyond the mooted inquiry into 18C. At the very least, Turnbull should amend 18C and amend the commission act to remove its proselyting role. The suggestion by Michael Sexton that the Human Rights Commission not proceed to investigate a complaint without the consent of the federal attorney-general, while fine at present, in the hands of a Labor attorney may make things worse.

The Prime Minister needs to press his well-heeled heel firmly on to the neck of the anti-free speech lobby in this country, some of whom exist in his party. The overwhelming majority of the electorate will thank him.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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