Govt mulls human rights commission downgrade

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The federal government may not appoint a new Human Rights Commissioner to replace outgoing Ed Santow when his five-year term ends this month, according to sources familiar with the matter.

InnovationAus understands a standalone Human Rights Commissioner will not be appointed, and instead the commission’s current president, Professor Rosalind Crouche, would hold both titles and serve both roles.

While its is not unprecedented that one person occupy both roles, the move would effectively downgrade the AHRC at a time when it has become increasingly vocal in discussions about the impact of new technologies like artificial intelligence.

Mr Santow has been a strong advocate for responsible and ethical technology development and use, among other rights issues, leading a multi-year project on rights protection in emerging technology.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash

No announcement has been made for his replacement by Attorney General Michaelia Cash, whose portfolio includes the Australian Human Rights Commission, less than two weeks before his departure.

A spokeswoman for Ms Cash declined to respond to questions on the appointment of a new commissioner, except to say it is a matter “for the Cabinet”.

Australia has had a full-time Human Rights Commissioner since 2013. The role includes conducting inquiries on human rights issues and providing advice to government, advocating for human rights to be considered in laws and policy making, and monitoring and scrutinising Australia’s performance in meeting its international human rights obligations.

It has been held in a dual capacity previously, but this structure was criticised for diminishing the effectiveness of the role.

Human rights law expert and RMIT lecturer Dr Adam Fletcher said current Australian Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow had brought the role back to prominence and has been a strong advocate for human rights.

A move back to sharing the role would likely put some projects in jeopardy and risk losing momentum of Santow’s work, he told InnovationAus.

“There’s more than enough work for two very competent people in those two roles and having one person perform both is going to necessarily limit the amount which can be done,” Dr Fletcher said.

“My suspicion is that it’d be difficult to achieve as much as they have in the last few years with only one person in a dual role.”

One of Mr Santow’s biggest pieces of work was leading a three-year investigation into the impact of technology on human rights, culminating in a report with 38 recommendations to government. Recommendations included  establishing an artificial intelligence safety commissioner and halting the use of facial recognition and algorithms in important decision-making until adequate protections are in place.

His departure means the loss of the most prominent rights expert with deep knowledge of technology, and a very effective advocate in those areas, Dr Fletcher said.

“Ed Santow really has an understanding of the rights and technology area which not many others in oversight [roles] or government could claim.”

A spokeswomen for the Attorney General’s Department declined to answer direct questions on the appointment of another standalone human rights commissioner.

“Appointments to the Human Rights Commission are a matter for the Cabinet,” the spokeswomen told InnovationAus.

The Prime Minister’s office declined to expand on the matter, including questions on the current stage of an appointment or whether a standalone human rights commissioner will be appointed.

The Australian Human Rights Commission declined to comment on the appointment because commissioner appointments are a matter for government.

Relations between the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Coalition have improved since the strained relationship between Abbot-era Attorney General George Brandis and then-president Professor Gillian Triggs.

But the government has also been defensive to critiques on its human rights record and failing to appoint a standalone Human Rights Commissioner would fit with this trend, Dr Fletcher said.

“It goes with the trend, I suppose, of not prioritising human rights protection,” Dr Fletcher said.

“Because if they did they would definitely appoint a replacement, respond to calls for more funding for the commission and for oversight bodies such as the audit office.”

Mr Santow will leave the role at the end of July to lead a responsible tech initiative at UTS.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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