Government asked to set up open process to pick human rights commissioners

Human rights experts and Amnesty International are demanding the government commits to transparent and open appointments to the Australian Human Rights Council after it gave a plum posting to a law lecturer with strong ties to the Liberal Party.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has defended the appointments, saying they are always a matter for cabinet.

Newly appointed human rights commissioner Lorraine Finlay’s views have drawn fire.

Senator Cash last week appointed law lecturer and human trafficking specialist Lorraine Finlay as the new human rights commissioner with the council for a five-year term.

The decision was criticised by Australian of the Year Grace Tame, who called it “a grave, grave mistake” because of Ms Finlay’s previous public opposition to affirmative consent laws. Labor and the Greens also criticised the appointment because of Ms Finlay’s criticism of laws protecting against racist hate speech, denouncement of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, and links to the Liberal Party and libertarian think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

More than 80 human rights advocates now want the government to change the way it appoints commissioners, citing fears the Australian Human Rights Commission could lose public trust and international credibility if it is seen as biased.

Amnesty International’s national director Sam Klintworth said the call was not about Ms Finlay personally, but rather concern that her appointment was hand-picked without the role being advertised and a transparent process followed.

“With a shoulder tap-style appointment, we don’t have that same confidence that an individual appointed in that way is going to be impartial rather than responding to the appointment through a sense of obligation or alliance,” she said.

“And I’m certainly not suggesting that that is the case with this appointment, but there’s certainly a risk when the [commissioner] hasn’t been appointed through an open transparent meritorious process.”

She h’s co-written an open letter to Senator Cash with Justine Nolan, director of UNSW’s Australian Human Rights Institute, and more than 80 other signatories asking for a change to the legislation governing appointments.

They have also sought a commitment from shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus that Labor would follow an open recruitment process.

“We’re not asking for something special, we’re asking for an open and transparent process of appointment to be followed,” Professor Nolan said.

Most of Ms Finlay’s predecessors were appointed through a merit-based process, she said.

The notable exception was Tim Wilson, now the Liberal MP for Goldstein, whose appointment as the “freedom comissioner” also drew criticism because of his previous role as policy director for the IPA, a strong critic of the AHRC.

“If we can’t appoint a human rights commissioner in a fair and transparent way, then what does that say about human rights in this country?” Professor Nolan said.

“It’s not about the person, it’s about the process.”

Senator Cash said Ms Finlay was eminently qualified for the position.

“The government stands by all of its appointments to the Human Rights Commission, which are a matter for cabinet,” she said.

“[Ms Finlay] has dedicated her life to protecting and supporting women and children who have been victim to sexual abuse and human trafficking.”

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