That Tim Wilson used his Human Rights Commission email account for political purposes when he became the Human Rights Commissioner may seem trivial or “utterly irrelevant” as he calls it. Yet surely it risked compromising the independence of the Commission and represents a new form of politicization of the public service.
In The Guardian of 21/7 Christopher Knaus reported that “[Tim] Wilson used his Human Rights Commission email account to help book an Institute of Public Affairs speaker and seek help with preselection bid.”
He goes on to say that, “The correspondence ranges across Wilson’s controversial tenure at the commission from 2014 to 2016, and was released through freedom of information laws to an anonymous applicant who requested exchanges between Wilson’s work email account and addresses with the domains “@ipa.org.au” or “@liberal.org.au”.” The anonymous applicant has released his correspondence with the commission and made it available to anyone interested. It was clear there was much toing-and froing before the correspondence was released, but released it was in redacted form.
On the one hand, it might seem trivial that a person uses his official email account to send and receive messages relating to issues not associated with his official position. Many people do it, often in ways that are entirely innocent. On the other hand, it seems imprudent given that Wilson was in a prominent public service role, and it would have been much better to use a private email or even one associated with the IPA, but even doing the latter might have compromised his position with the Human Rights Commission.
Surely it is obvious that a person in a high-profile position like this cannot risk having too many allegiances, or if they do have such, they should be made transparent. At least in one of the emails he sent Wilson did make his intentions explicit. On 26/10/14 he writes, “Since then I have left the IPA. Our (now not so) new government appointed me Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner. It’s an interesting role, especially because I now get to prosecute libertarian values within government. Needless to say the appointment attracted a lot of controversy.”
It is seemingly with great delight that he says he could “prosecute libertarian values within government.” Surely this is the crux of the problem, as it is not up to him to prosecute particular values within government, rather is it to carry out the stated roles of the Human Rights Commissioner. At least in a public face he should appear to be politically neutral and prosecute the role of the HRC. Of course, it is naïve to suggest there is no cross over as all such appointments are political. The problem here, though, is with the IPA in particular which has been so rapacious in pushing its right-wing ideologies through the present LNP government and with considerable success, ideologies which are surely in contradiction to the equalitarian values of the HRC. Wilson has been outspoken in his support for the continuation of franking credits–which benefit mainly the wealthy–and used this with considerable success to help the LNP win the last election.
A position like Human Rights Commissioner has considerable status attached to it and can in practical terms be used to raise one’s own profile in aspiring for advancement in a different area. This, of course, happens all the time, but in such a crucial position in a strongly multi-cultural society, it seems extremely problematic. It also suggests–at the time the email was sent– that the prosecution of libertarian values would also define his role in parliament, almost as if he were to be a representative of the IPA rather than as representing the interests of the electors of Goldstein.
The point is that when in a position of public office a person should be as neutral as possible and fulfil their role on the basis of evidence, not on ideology. I realise it is the height of naivety to say this, yet the decisions of the ruling party in this country have become so dominated by an ideology that benefits the top ten percent of society, and this without apology, that a move back to fairness and a commitment to the whole of society has to be begun somewhere. Even a bias towards the bottom forty percent would have long term benefits for the whole of society, as well as for the forty percent themselves.
To my knowledge no LNP member has come out and commented on the content of these emails sent by Wilson which are clearly political in intent. Yet when Gillian Triggs, then President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, spoke to the Bob Brown Foundation, “Liberal Senator Eric Abetz criticised the appropriateness of Triggs speaking at a fundraiser for the former Greens leader, as the Foundation conducts overtly political activist campaigns. Triggs defended her appearance, stating that event tickets would be used to cover costs, with the surplus being donated to the Bob Brown Foundation. Her appearance resulted in other senior members of government, including Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, calling for her resignation.”
It is not without interest to allude to another short speech Wilson made to a professional advocacy group called ADVOC8 when asked, “How important is it for Australian organisations to have a GR [government relations] team and engage with Government?” and he answers: “Critical. Trust and relationships are essential – we all remember who wasn’t there when things were tough. And we particularly remember those that stood by us when everyone thought that we were going to lose. We never forget. Trust me: we never forget. And people who are only there for the good times get received as such.”
Of course, trust is fundamental in politics, but it has been dramatic decline in Australia over the past twenty years and it will be recovered only when those in political office represent those for whom they are elected to represent and not others. I suppose Wilson was in honest in his declaration “to prosecute libertarian values,” but as manifested in everything associated with the IPA, these are not the values the Australian people want in their politicians.
Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University.