Sunday, 22 December 2013

PVO: Brandis and Dreyfus take hypocrisy to a new level 21/12

Brandis and Dreyfus take hypocrisy to a new level


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Illustration: Eric Lobbecke Source: TheAustralian
ALL you can do is laugh at the hypocritical actions of the first law officer, Attorney-General George Brandis QC, and his opposition counterpart, Mark Dreyfus QC, himself attorney-general in the previous Labor government, when it comes to appointments and the pair's commentary on those appointments.
The two men are no strangers to hypocrisy, having used inflated rhetoric to condemn others for entitlements abuses before themselves being caught out for not dissimilar failings. But the pair's commentary about two recent appointments to the Australian Human Rights Commission reads as if it were torn from the pages of a Yes Minister script.
Last July, Dreyfus appointed 31-year-old Tim Soutphommasane to the AHRC. Brandis slammed the appointment, describing Soutphommasane as an "overt partisan of the Labor Party", adding that "appointees must be people who can command the confidence of the entire community that they will discharge their responsibilities in the human rights field in a non-partisan manner".
Soutphommasane was a member of the Labor Party and an active voice for the Left, appearing regularly on the political talk-show circuit. He was also a fellow at the left-leaning think tank Per Capita. Dreyfus rejected the Brandis attack, arguing Soutphommasane was well qualified for the role. I'll come to that misnomer in a moment. It is worth noting that Soutphommasane was an entry-level academic (albeit a very good one) when he was appointed to a role previously held by judges and former federal ministers.
This week Brandis made his first AHRC appointment, selecting 33-year-old Tim Wilson, a director at the right-wing (it sees itself as "free market") think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.
All of a sudden Brandis no longer thought it important that appointees "discharge their responsibilities in the human rights field in a non-partisan manner", as he had previously said. Equally, having condemned Dreyfus for making the Soutphommasane appointment late in Labor's term without consulting the opposition before doing so, Brandis announced Wilson's appointment to the AHRC before the Governor-General had even formally signed off on it. Brandis's high bar for due process was suddenly forgotten.
What was Dreyfus's reaction to the Wilson appointment? He said it was "dubious to say the least", attacking Wilson's partisanship (until the appointment Wilson was a member of the Liberal Party). How can Brandis and Dreyfus expect people to take them seriously? By all means condemn a partisan appointment by your political opponents, but don't then make one yourself. By all means make partisan appointments, but for God's sake shut up when your opponents go on to do likewise.
The sad thing about Dreyfus and Brandis is that they are supposed to be the adults in any room: former senior members of the bar and now senior frontbenchers within their parliamentary parties. Prior to Brandis and Dreyfus demeaning themselves, I would have argued that the biggest complaint anyone should have with the Wilson and Soutphommasane appointments is that with a base salary of more than $320,000 a year, surely candidates should have CVs to match the likes of a Brandis or Dreyfus to even be considered for positions on the AHRC.
In truth, the reason appointees to the commission no longer live up to the pedigree of past commissioners is because the AHRC has been exposed as nothing more than a lobbying arm of the public service, and an expensive one at that. The Fraser government set up the AHRC as an almost quasi-judicial body that would have the power to enforce rulings on issues within its ambit. But a 1995 High Court judgment stripped the commission of the power to make and enforce decisions, turning it into a toothless tiger. Hence the AHRC no longer conducts hearings.
The limited role of the AHRC today is what brings into question the $25 million it costs each year to run. It isn't just the salaries of the commissioners that are expensive and no longer justifiable. The entire apparatus takes rent-seeking to a new level. You have to love the irony that in the same week that Treasurer Joe Hockey talked about the need to reduce the size of government when releasing his mid-year economic and fiscal outlook, the Attorney-General makes a new appointment to a body he had previously (privately) canvassed abolishing.
It is hard to justify the salaries of commissioners being tied to those of judges, now the role of the AHRC has been downgraded. The calibre of appointments isn't what it once was. There are exceptions: Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, a former law partner, is one. Another is Gillian Triggs, a former dean of law at the University of Sydney. But for the most part finding senior practitioners to fill AHRC roles is increasingly hard to do now the functions of the commission centre around a glorified form of lobbying and public advocacy. And with this shift the likes of Soutphommasane and Wilson become ideally suited to becoming commissioners: able to hit the airwaves to mount arguments in the policy areas they have been assigned.
The question for taxpayers is: why are we now paying for them to do pretty much what they already had been doing, at a cheaper price, when they were paid by their ideologically driven organisations? A new conservative government was always likely to counterbalance years of left-wing appointments to the AHRC with right-wing appointments of its own. A strong conservative government, however, would simply have abolished the commission and saved the money.
There is nothing the AHRC does that can't be done by advocacy groups within academia, the non-government sector or even government departments. Equally, the toothless reports the AHRC produces could just as easily be done by the Ombudsman, only with much greater powers to investigate before publishing findings.
If the AHRC has to exist at all, Wilson's appointment at least starts the process of balancing up the organisation. Were it a truly quasi-judicial body such ideological thinking wouldn't much matter, but as a body for public advocacy it certainly does.
Peter van Onselen is a professor at the University of Western Australia.

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