The Australian Human Rights Institute (UNSW Sydney), The Human Rights Law Centre, and Amnesty International Australia welcomed the introduction of a proposed law that would help ensure the Australian Human Rights Commission is independent and effective.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus QC introduced the Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Amendment (Selection and Appointment Bill) in the first sitting week of the federal Parliament as part of the federal government's commitment to restoring the Commission's international credibility and independence.
The proposed law introduces requirements that statutory appointments to the Commission are made through a publicly-advertised, merits-based selection system.
Earlier this year the global body that accredits national human rights watchdogs warned that the Commission’s “A status” ranking may be downgraded if steps were not taken to ensure open merit-based selection processes for future Commissioner appointments.
This came after the former Morrison government hand-picked Lorraine Finlay to be Human Rights Commissioner without an open, merit-based selection process. Finlay was appointed for a five-year term and replaced the outgoing commissioner Ed Santow. In 2019, Ben Gauntlett was hand-picked to be Disability Discrimination Commissioner also without an open, merit-based selection process.
Professor Justine Nolan, Director, Australian Human Rights Institute:
“The Australian Human Rights Commission must be independent from government. Without clear, transparent and merit-based processes for appointments, this will not happen. Its legitimacy on the world stage and ability to participate at the UN Human Rights Council hangs in the balance unless these political, handpicked appointments end. This Bill is the first step to restoring the Commission’s credibility and people’s confidence in its long-term ability to effectively protect human rights.”
Keren Adams, Acting Co-CEO, Human Rights Law Centre:
“Whether it’s dealing with the indefinite detention of refugees, sexual harassment in our Parliament or the shameful treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it’s critical that Australia has a strong and independent Australian Human Rights Commission. We commend the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus QC for prioritising the need for a transparent, merit-based selection process for future Commissioner appointments. The Government must now also move quickly to restore funding to the Commission so it can properly do its important work.”
Tim O'Connor, Impact Director Amnesty International Australia:
“The commitment from the Albanese government to ensure transparency and integrity around appointments to the Human Rights Commission is an extremely welcome move.
“It’s essential for this organisation and its credibility and efficacy that it is independent from government, so we welcome this Bill which will ensure appointments to the Human Rights Commission are transparent and merit-based.”
The Australian Human Rights Commission is an independent national institution that promotes understanding and respect for human rights in Australia. It receives and mediates thousands of discrimination and human rights complaints each year, undertakes public education, and conducts major inquiries into human rights issues of national significance, such as its Respect@Work inquiry and the Stolen Generations report. There are a number of government-appointed Commissioner positions at the Commission and in 2023 three positions will be vacant.
Following criticism of the Abbott government hand-picking Tim Wilson as Human Rights Commissioner in 2013, successive Australian governments have generally adopted open recruitment processes for commission appointments. However, the former Morrison Government reverted to hand-picking key roles. In March this year the Commission warned that its current levels of funding "do not provide us with the resources required to perform our statutory functions".