Who is Lorraine Finlay, Australia's new Human Rights Commissioner?

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash says Lorraine Finlay will protect and promote "traditional rights and freedoms in Australia", but members of the LGBTIQ+ community fear the appointment will reverse years of advocacy work.

Lorraine Finlay begins her five-year term as Human Rights Commissioner on 22 November 2021.

Lorraine Finlay begins her five-year term as Human Rights Commissioner on 22 November 2021. Source: Murdoch University

Lorraine Finlay was appointed Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner by federal Attorney-General Michaelia Cash on Sunday.

She replaces Edward Santow, who has completed his five-year term.

Ms Cash said Ms Finlay will serve well in the role, which she assumes from 22 November 2021.

"As Human Rights Commissioner, Ms Finlay will be responsible for protecting and promoting traditional rights and freedoms in Australia."

Lorraine Finlay has been appointed as Australia's next Human Rights Commissioner.
Source: Murdoch University

The law lecturer at Murdoch University has worked as a senior human trafficking specialist with the Australian Mission to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and as a state prosecutor at the WA Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). 

She was also a former upper house candidate in Western Australia and president of the state’s Liberal Women’s Council.

"I am honoured to be appointed as the Human Rights Commissioner and am looking forward to building on the substantial contributions made by my predecessors in the role," she said in a media statement.

Human rights groups said they are concerned about Ms Finlay's stance on issues like sexual consent in the law or section 18C on racial discrimination.

LGBTIQ+ advocates fear gains will be wound back

Ms Finlay was the co-author of a submission to the Ruddock religious freedoms inquiry in 2018 that argued there was an unjustifiable imbalance between religious freedoms and anti-discrimination laws.

The head of LGBTIQ+ organisation Just Equal, Rodney Croome, said Ms Finlay’s submission was in direct opposition to the result of the Ruddock inquiry, which found no threat to religious freedom, following the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia.

"That to me is a false and fear-based narrative. It has no place in the human rights dialogue in Australia and it certainly has no place at the Australian Human Rights Commission," he said.

Ms Finlay is also a longstanding critic of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate someone because of their race.

Mr Croome said the LGBTIQ+ community fears Ms Finlay's appointment may reverse years of advocacy work.

"Over the last 40 or 50 years in Australia, LGBTIQ+ people and our allies have fought really hard and made immense sacrifices to reach the stage where we are approaching equality in the law.

"My fear now - and the fear of many LGBTIQ+ Australians - is that the gains that we've made, the equality that Australians have voted for, is being eroded, is under siege and will be wound back."

Grace Tame, advocate for survivors of sexual assault and Australian of the Year 2021, called the appointment of Ms Finlay a "grave mistake" because of her public opposition to affirmative consent laws, which requires active steps to be taken to gain consent before sex.

Ms Finlay has defended her views on Twitter, saying: "My views on affirmative consent reforms are views about one specific law reform issue. This is a law reform question that people can have different views about, while still sharing a firm commitment to condemning violence and protecting victims."

In a statement to the ABC, Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said: "to suggest that Ms Finlay will be anything but a fierce advocate for women is completely unfounded".

Call for open recruitment process 

Following the criticism of the handpicked appointment of Tim Wilson as Human Rights Commissioner in 2013, successive Australian governments have adopted open recruitment processes for commission appointments.

Executive Director Human Rights Law Centre, Hugh De Kretser is questioning why Ms Finlay’s appointment did not include this process.

“I think it's critical for Australia that we have a strong and independent human rights commission. And bad process - like the appointment for this latest commissioner position - undermines the commission's effectiveness and its independence. It's bad for the candidate, it's bad for the government and it's bad for the position," he said.

The organisation is calling for a fair, open and merit-based selection process for appointments in the future.

"The question is: how did the Attorney-General come to that conclusion when this position wasn't advertised. There wasn't objective criteria available. There wasn't an open invitation for people to put their hand up as candidates for this position.

"They are standard recruitment techniques, that any corporate would employ, that any public service position would use. And yet, for an incredibly important appointment like this, the government has abandoned that and apparently just handpicked someone."

Just Equal spokesperson Rodney Croome
Source: Supplied

Rodney Croome said human rights commissioners have previously taken on the portfolio of LGBTIQ+ issues as there is no separate commissioner.

He is calling for the appointment of an independent commissioner.

"There are dedicated commissioners when it comes to issues of race, sex, disability, age, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but not LGBTIQ+ Australians. It's time that there was a dedicated commissioner to stand up for our rights and to champion equality for all Australians, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or status."

Mr Kretser said it is vital that Australia's human rights watchdog is independent in its coverage of issues.

"We've got from refugees going into their ninth year of indefinite detention in Australia. We have the ongoing shameful treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Australia needs an independent human rights watchdog to monitor these issues and speak up about them."

Former human rights commissioner commends Ms Finlay's appointment

Federal Labor's legal affairs spokesperson, Mark Dreyfus, said the role is particularly important, considering the rise of racism in the country right now.

“We've got a rising level of right-wing extremism and racism in our country. It's something that the head of ASIO has identified. If ever there was a time where we need to have the protection of racist hate speech reinforced and not torn down, it's now."

Mr Dreyfus said he is concerned by Ms Finlay's appointment to the role of Human Rights Commissioner.

“There is no doubt that the human rights commissioner is a very, very powerful position, vital for the protection of human rights in Australia.

"The published views of Lorraine Finlay make you ask the question: 'what is the government trying to achieve by appointing someone with these views, to this very powerful position?'."

Liberal MP and former human rights commissioner Tim Wilson said the public needs to hear from a diversity of voices.

"If there is debate, that is the job of the human rights commissioner to foster," he told the ABC. "Her appointment fulfils exactly what the objective is (which is) to improve the rights and freedoms of every Australian," he said.

Lorraine Finlay was approached for comment but she said she is not doing interviews until later in the year.


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Published 8 September 2021 at 8:58pm, updated 8 September 2021 at 9:03pm
By Julia Carr-Catzel
Source: SBS News

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