Spare us another human rights sermon from the bully pulpit

Published in The Australian, July 2, 2013

THE response to the disability commissioner’s online petition has been pretty slack, quite frankly. Only 38,000 Australians have signed up to Graeme Innes’s campaign to force Myer to set a quota for disabled workers, which suggests that 99.95 per cent of the population aren’t too fussed.

Eight times more Australians, a full 1 per cent of the population, have registered their disgust at Princess Merida’s bust enhancement for the Disney Princess doll collection while a thumping 0.06 per cent demand that Jetstar should drop its $8.50 credit card booking fee.

Changing the world was a demanding business before the internet came along. Now it is as easy as ordering groceries, but requires less sacrifice, since unlike Woolworths, change.org does not ask for a credit card.

Even so, it is amazing how indifferent we can be. Despite the ABC’s 10-year rolling coverage of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, only 81,000 respondents want the Pope to put a stop to it.

Change.org is not, as some would claim, an adjunct to democracy but a place where self-appointed moral guardians wear the prefect’s badge and tell the rest of us how to behave. It is a repository of virtual virtue, the eBay of smugness, where sanctity is traded, compassion is commodified and morality stripped of complexity.

It is, then, the perfect environment for the Human Rights Commission, which these days sees itself less as the guardian of the social fabric and more as the vanguard for social change.

Innes decided to go to war with Bernie Brookes on change.org after the Myer boss questioned the impact of the national disability insurance scheme levy on discretionary spending.

It was an entirely proper contribution for a chief executive to make to the policy debate. Brookes no doubt shares Innes’s goal of making the world a better place, but he also understands the consequences of increasing the tax take.

Questioning the fiscal impact of disability insurance was a brave act of resistance in this prissy political climate where the more worthy the cause, the less rigorous the public scrutiny. To ask for a cost-benefit analysis of the Gonski school reforms or disability funding, for example, is tantamount to declaring oneself a heartless cad. Showing you care means abandoning due diligence.

Innes was not prepared simply to agree to disagree with Brookes, however, to revel in robust debate and celebrate the diversity of opinions. Instead he took to change.org to condemn Brookes’s comments as “disappointing”, and then solicited signatories to his petition calling on Myer to commit to an employment target of 10 per cent of people with disability by the end of 2015.

If Innes was merely a judge, Brookes would have been able to appeal the guilty verdict against him in order to restore his good name. In the world of human rights, however, a commissioner on a $270,000 package is judge, jury and executioner. There is no higher authority, except perhaps Gillian Triggs who runs the Human Rights Commission, but she has so far stood by Innes.

It is further evidence, if it were needed, that the commissioners are on a frolic of their own, indifferent to the will of a parliament that last week signed off on the commission’s annual stipend of $18.4 million. Commissioners were meant to occupy themselves by inquiring into alleged discrimination, assisting conciliation and running an expert eye over proposed enactments. In recent years, however, they have become impatient with democracy and driven by the need for radical social reform.

Australians may be deeply divided on the difficult policy issues of asylum-seekers or same sex-marriage, but on the commission there is only one view, and there is no need to log on to Facebook to work out what it is.

The commission takes section 11:1 (g) of the Human Rights Commission Act as a licence to do as it pleases. The clause instructs the commission “to promote an understanding and acceptance, and the public discussion, of human rights in Australia.”

Armed with this, the commission campaigns against mandatory detention, finds itself troubled by the enhanced screening of asylum claimants and harbours serious concerns about the ASIO security assessment process.

These may be reasonable concerns for an individual to hold, but it is improper that a government agency should adopt such partisan positions and use public funds to fight its case.

But then as the outgoing Human Rights commissioner Catherine Branson said last year, achieving “a strong national culture of human rights is much too important to leave just to governments.” The commission should not only be willing to speak up on contentious issues but to “signal the worth of that conversation.” Branson, in other words, wants the commission to be the arbiter between good and bad, noble and ignoble, virtue and vice, a role once reserved for ministers of the church. Branson told a gathering last June: “This may, I believe, be the commission’s greatest responsibility – to use the strength of its position to engage Australians in a shared purpose.”

Should the Coalition win government, this intemperate burst of taxpayer-funded activism may be the last hurrah for the commission, which opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis appears to have in his sights.

“It is no part of the advocacy function of the commission to run a vendetta against a public company,” Brandis said yesterday. “It is using the advocacy paragraph of the act as a bully pulpit to inflict reputational damage.”

Once, a political party or corporation would be no more prepared to challenge the Australian Human Rights Commission than it would Mother Teresa. After more than 30 years of mission creep, adventurism and political posturing, however, the gloves are off.