Let me put Lorraine Finlay's appointment to the Australian Human Rights Commission in context for you.
The position was not advertised. Finlay's background as a junior law academic gives no indication she is up to the task. Now she will be a member of our most sacred secular institution, to be spoken of in the same breath as sainted Triggsy.
Gillian Triggs, now at the United Nations as an Assistant Secretary-General, was president of the Australian Human Rights Commission at its finest. She stood up to bullies and to governments, and was at her most impressive when those two intersected. She persevered with her task, even during the appointment of Tim Wilson as Human Rights Commissioner. Wilson disappeared after just two years before being elected to the seat of Goldstein,but there was plenty of time for status building. He was still on the public payroll at the AHRC when he began doing interviews, letting Australians know of his grand plans.
Triggs is now in Geneva, and doesn't want to comment on the current fracas. But she has this advice: "At a broad level, national human rights institutions are particularly important where there are no other constitutional or other legislative protections for human rights, such as a charter of rights.
"All national human rights institutions must be independent of government and protected by statutes; and the principles which underpin human rights must be respected."
Independent of government. Rightio.
Triggs was at the AHRC when the monstering began to abolish section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Emeritus Professor Andrew Jakubowicz says the chief driver, the Institute of Public Affairs, failed to convince even members of the Liberal Party. Triggs stood as a beacon of hope.
"She was publicly opposed to the government changing the bill and if she hadn't come out so strongly and said 'No bloody way', it would have been much harder," says Jakubowicz.
Here we are, a few years after that unedifying stoush, and it is hard to believe the federal government has found an appointee even less suited to the job than the last apparatchik it installed.
Once again, there was nothing resembling proper process. No call for applications. Nothing. Finlay was simply parachuted into a well-paid five year term. Finlay was an associate to the High Court's Dyson Heydon from 2006 to 2008, a state prosecutor at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions between 2008 and 2012, a lecturer in law at Murdoch, and a part-time senior human-trafficking specialist at DFAT. She's a former president of the WA Liberal Women's Council and failed to win an upper house seat in the March 2017 WA election (acknowledging it's hard to manoeuvre your way around the WA Liberal Men's Clan).
She is one of those endless Institute of Public Affairs sooks with a raging desire for "more freedoms", whatever that means. She has said there are significant legal and practical problems with affirmative consent laws, has shared her views with men's rights activist Bettina Arndt, co-wrote No Offence Intended: Why 18C is Wrong (you can only imagine), and thinks we don't need an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
There are many concerning aspects of the appointment, including the clear breach of the Paris Principles covering national institutions, passed by the UN General Assembly back in 1993, in particular the ones regarding independence from government.
Kath Gelber, a professor of politics and public policy at the University of Queensland and a deadset expert when it comes to freedom of speech, isn't a fan of the appointment either.
"The fact Finlay has made open comments that are not just critical of the work of the commission but also critical of the concepts underpinning the frameworks for human rights protections in Australia are extremely concerning," she says.
"There was no advertisement. Transparency is essential for legitimacy within those institutions tasked with holding the government to account. This does not pass the pub test.
"We must reinforce the legitimacy of core democratic institutions under threat and the government has done the exact opposite."
The Australian Human Rights Commission's 2018 Young Person's Human Rights Medal winner Saxon Mullins, an affirmative consent activist, describes Finlay's appointment as frustrating and disheartening. That plus the federal government's clear rejection of employers' "positive duty" to prevent workplace sexual harassment are both signs the government is not serious about gender equality, she says.
"These events all happened around the time of the Women's Safety Summit, proof we were not having the summit with the right government," says Mullins.
"It would be easy to undo some of the work that's been done in the last 40 years, and I worry that someone with such damaging views is now a human rights commissioner."
Finlay starts her term in November, replacing Ed Santow - who I am confident went through two rounds of bruising interviews to get the job when he was appointed back in the day.
Let me take you back in time to when Tim Wilson was appointed as the human rights commissioner - chosen by then attorney-general George Brandis as an extra commissioner without any clear process, and without adding any budget to the commission. The result was an upskilling of Wilson on the public purse, and a reduction in funding to elsewhere in the commission.
Graeme Innes, the former disability discrimination commissioner and, for a time, human rights commissioner and race discrimination commissioner - whose nine-year term briefly overlapped Wilson's - told me: "The assumption was that whatever was said in meetings was going straight back to government. It was the most political appointment I can remember."
The good news is that the vast, vast majority of those appointed to the Australian Human Rights Commission are not there to be transmogrified into paid politicians. Nor are they there to espouse their personal views. Wilson's influence came to naught because the AHRC had so many excellent staffers and commissioners that he couldn't do much damage. Perhaps Finlay thinks she can follow in Wilson's footsteps, and parachute into some safe Liberal seat in WA.
Simon Rice, formerly a professor of law at the Australian National University and now chair of law and social justice at the University of Sydney, was also alarmed by the lack of transparency around Finlay's appointment.
"She is going to the commission with the backing of an organisation [the Institute for Public Affairs] which has called for its abolition," says Rice.
But he is confident that the AHRC can prevail: "It may even be that her views broaden after a time."
Either that or she choofs off to battle State Daddy (Western Australia's nickname for Premier Mark McGowan). And good luck with that. In the meantime, wouldn't you love the current president of the AHRC to chuck a Triggsy?
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.