‘Freedom Commissioner’ balances human rights and counter-terrorism laws
Less than a year after being appointed by the Attorney-General as Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson is speaking freely.
The 34-year-old Melbournian calls himself a “classical liberal” and is advocating for human rights in the wake of new counter-terrorism laws – a voice that has seen him dubbed the ‘Freedom Commissioner’.
Wilson is known as a long-time champion of civil rights, from advocating for sexual identification of transgender individuals to lobbying for freedom of association.
“I’ve been deeply involved and interested in public policy, individual rights and free and open liberal policy,” Wilson said.
He’s the former policy director at the free market think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, and was a member of the Liberal Party up until the Attorney-General, George Brandis, appointed him as commissioner, when he resigned.
"(Hizb ut-Tahrir) say deeply unsavoury things that I disagree with, but it doesn't mean they should be censored."
– Tim Wilson, Australian Human Rights Commissioner
He has never supported the retention of 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and points to three independent inquiries that recommended laws significantly different to the ones we have now.
But they’re not the only laws Wilson has a problem with. He’s been voicing concerns about counter-terrorism laws, while maintaining “my relationship with the Attorney-General is constructive.”
The fine line between terrorism and freedom
He said he’s “nervous” about the “broad legislative changes” introduced to federal parliament, while acknowledging a “tension” between free speech and the need to protect Australia from terrorist attacks.
“There’s a constructive way to go about (counter-terrorism laws) to preserve and protect individual freedom,” Wilson said.
“The proscribing of terrorist organisations (and outlawing of association and communication), if there are good grounds, is justifiable - if there’s clear evidence. They are enemies of the Australian people and the Australian way of life.”
As a general principle, he said the threat to life “trumps” free speech, but “someone feeling unpleasant or uncomfortable” doesn’t.
And while politicians from his former party speak against Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia, a controversial organisation which has called for the establishment of a global Caliphate, Wilson said they are “a lawfully formed association... They say deeply unsavoury things that I disagree with, but it doesn’t mean they should be censored; outrageous, absurd and ridiculous arguments are entirely legitimate opinions (in a liberal democracy) that should be defeated by logical arguments, not censorship.”
Religious freedom, he said, is similar to freedom of speech, and has to be assessed on two plains: first, there is the freedom of thought and consciousness; second, the practice and expression of religion cannot conflict with the laws of the land.
Religious beliefs shouldn’t be used as “a cloak (for speech) to cross the line,” when it could place people at a risk of significant harm.
But legislation that outlaws the “advocacy of terrorism is too broad” as speech inciting people to hate or violence is already covered by existing laws, he said.
He said that in a free and liberal democracy such as Australia, the government should be cautious when dictating what people can’t say. “There’s a difference between what’s dictated by governments and what operates under religious or cultural norms. People are quite free to leave a social or cultural group,” while a government can restrict rights.
So how does a “classical liberal” react to laws that declare hostile areas and make it an offence for Australians to travel to or remain in them?
“I take the security risk to Australia extremely seriously... (Legislation) is not motivated by unfounded fear - and nobody should underestimate the risk of foreign fighters returning to Australia.”
“The objective the government is trying to achieve is okay, as those returning from foreign wars seemingly can’t integrate with society.”
He said the government would need “sufficient evidence” to charge someone, but he’s “deeply uncomfortable” at the possibility of “innocent people with a legitimate purpose being caught up in the law.”
Concerns have been raised by Muslim lawyers that the Foreign Fighters Bill reverses the ‘onus of proof’. Wilson rejects this, as “it requires the government to prove you were in a particular place”, but he concedes it “reverses the principles of our liberal democracy.”
Wilson doesn’t object to the government accessing metadata and information from computers, as he said “technological change poses a real and present risk to national security,” and these data retention laws are then left with “a challenge not to violate privacy.”
While he recognises that “legislation is used cautiously" in the exercise of control orders and preventative detention orders that allow authorities to detain people without charge, Wilson remains a voice of caution. He believes that any legislative restriction of free speech should be narrowed to protect the safety of Australians. This should be open to regular review: he applauds the 10-year ‘sunset clause’ that is being applied to control orders and other review safeguards introduced late into the debate on the Foreign Fighters Bill.
Debates around counter-terrorism legislation, he believes, are a conversation worth having. That debate, Wilson said, will be cut short if the federal government rushes through legislation before a legislative review takes place next year. “The government should wait,” he said.
Australia's human rights commissioner is trying to balance the need to protect Australians with civil liberties