Busy time for the new Commissioner for Human Rights
But Finlay’s friends and supporters say she won’t be a government idiot but rather a principled human rights voice from a classic liberal perspective, something the commission needs because coronavirus restrictions weigh on many ordinary freedoms that Australians normally enjoy.
Former Murdoch University law dean Gabriel A. Moens, who gave Finlay his first job at the institution, said the committee was mostly silent on the implications of the restrictions on freedoms of movement and expression, as well as on privacy rights.
“We might as well do without the commission because their job, after all, is to comment on the human rights implications of government policies, and they just haven’t,” Moens says.
“I would expect it to differ when Lorraine takes the job.”
Professor Augusto Zimmermann, frequent co-author and former colleague of Finlay who himself criticized the government over the restrictions (he tore up his Liberal Party membership in a furious resignation letter earlier this year), agrees the commission has been too silent. He’s not sure how Finlay will approach the issue, but says his overall vision is a concern for “fundamental rights,” a philosophy rooted in his time in the WA prosecutor’s office.
In addition to his tenure as district attorney, Finlay has the resume of the intelligent liberal lawyer described by his colleagues. After graduating from the University of Western Australia, Finlay went to the prosecutor’s office and then to the High Court, where she was a partner with Judge Dyson Heydon long before he was publicly hit with a series of allegations of harassment and indecent assault. Heydon denied them, although an independent court investigation found he had harassed six former court employees. Nonetheless, Heydon’s role was the marker of a young lawyer on a fine trajectory. Finlay went on to work at Murdoch and more recently in anti-human trafficking with the Australian Mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Senator Cash defended the selection of Finlay on the basis of these qualifications.
Finlay politely declined an interview and did not respond to requests for confirmation of biographical details.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the commission said it had provided advice to the government and others to ensure that measures to combat COVID-19 respected human rights, also noting several reports that she had published.
“Our commissioners have worked closely with frontline organizations, championing their names with government and continuing our vital work to help make marginalized voices heard,” the spokesperson said.
Tim Wilson, who himself was human rights commissioner before entering parliament as a Liberal MP, argues the fury around Finlay is far from disqualifying.
“The role of the Commissioner for Human Rights is to lead uncomfortable conversations, to generate debate and not to be someone from the central cast, so Finlay is a welcome appointment,” Wilson said.
She will need to work with government and the community and hold a mirror to everyone as needed, he said.
“The first thing Finlay should do is take stock of the COVID-19 measures, the evidence (or lack thereof) to justify them, and make recommendations to the government on whether they were proportionate and consistent with human rights principles. Frankly, this is something the human rights community should be embarrassed about having been so silent.
One of the main topics Finlay will face is religious discrimination.
The government is pushing to pass a bill in parliament that would ban discrimination against people on the basis of their faith and could, controversially, grant protections to those who act like rugby league footballer Israel Folau who suggested that homosexuals, fornicators and others would go to hell.
Finlay, a strong supporter of religious freedom in principle, is not a supporter of creating laws to protect it, unlike many Coalition members. She suggests that such laws could be misinterpreted by judges, elevate religious concerns above other rights and freedoms, and fail to change attitudes in the community as a whole.
“Whenever there is a problem in Australia, the default position seems to be that Parliament should do something about it,” Finlay wrote.
Robert Forsyth, a former Anglican bishop of South Sydney, disagrees with Finlay on religious freedom, but believes his overall vision will be very helpful to him. “You want the people in those positions not to believe in the endless expansion of the role, which is a temptation,” he says.
Former Racial Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane will not comment on the commission’s approach to rights during the coronavirus, but emphasizes that Finlay should do his job independently of government and be seen to do so.
He is more focused on the law on racial discrimination. “The vast majority of Australians reject racial hatred,” says Soutphommasane.
“They don’t want important protections against racial hatred to be dismantled in the pursuit of political ideology or cultural warfare. If the issue were to be reconsidered, the government and the commission would expect a massive political backlash. “
This is a clear, albeit implicit, warning to Finlay, whom he otherwise wishes well.
She once stepped on a political mine in opposing affirmative consent laws, which require someone to do or say something to indicate their consent to sex, in a 2018 discussion with Bettina Arndt , the human rights activist.
Arndt had previously conducted a sympathetic interview with Nicolaas Bester, the teacher who repeatedly sexually assaulted Australian of the Year Grace Tame at the age of 15.
Finlay’s announcement as commissioner in turn sparked a furious backlash from Tame, who called the appointment a “serious mistake” reflecting a lack of understanding of the issue of rape, sex and consent at the highest levels of the government. government.
This is the criticism Finlay publicly responded to, tweeting that his problem with affirmative consent was a specific problem of law reform (his argument is that the laws suggest that all sex is illegal unless proven otherwise, which undermines presumption of innocence) taken up by other organizations.
“This is a law reform issue on which people can have different opinions, while sharing a strong commitment to condemn violence and protect victims,” she said.
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the most important and interesting stories, analysis and ideas of the day. register here.