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A POLITICAL row has erupted over newly appointed Australian Human Rights commissioner Tim Wilson's $320,000-a-year salary.
Attorney-General George Brandis, who appointed Mr Wilson to the HRC to focus on safeguarding freedom of expression, has hit back at opposition calls for the government to find the money to pay his plump salary, declaring staffing costs at the HRC had ballooned by almost 50 per cent under the last three years of Labor.
The HRC's president Gillian Triggs has complained the commission's $25 million budget would be squeezed by Mr Wilson's appointment and the statutory agency would have to look at making cuts to some of its programs, such as an anti-bullying initiative and an education scheme for older Australians.
Labor's legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus yesterday seized on the remarks as evidence of the "ham-fisted process" of Mr Wilson's appointment. "Mr Wilson is already on the record calling for the Human Rights Commission to be abolished -- it looks like he may already get his way, with the commission forced to cut programs to pay for his salary."
Mr Dreyfus challenged Senator Brandis to "come up with the funding to pay for his position" if the Abbott government believed the perspective Mr Wilson would bring to the commission was vital.
"Otherwise, Senator Brandis needs to come clean about the kind of cuts he expects the Human Rights Commission to make to pay for his appointment," Mr Dreyfus said.
But Senator Brandis returned fire, pointing out staffing costs at the human rights agency blew out under the previous government.
He said the HRC's latest annual report showed it employed 143 staff at a cost of $16.38m. "That is an increase in staffing costs of $1.32m over the previous year, and an increase of $5.37m, or almost 50 per cent, in the three years since June 2010," Senator Brandis said.
"If the commission decides to increase its staffing costs by 50 per cent in three years, it is difficult to understand how the salary of a single statutory officer cannot be met by economies within its staffing expenditure rather than elsewhere in its budget."
But Senator Brandis said the management of its finances was a matter for the commission and Mr Wilson's salary, like those of the other commissioners, was determined independently by the Remuneration Tribunal.
Senator Brandis said Mr Wilson would help restore balance at the Australian Human Rights Commission, but Labor claimed his appointment signalled the "blatant political agenda" of Senator Brandis.