June 28, 2012
PITY Victoria's equal opportunity commission chairman, John Searle: as the last board member of the human rights watchdog still standing, his workload has just increased dramatically. As The Age reported exclusively yesterday, the independent statutory body is in turmoil after board members tendered their resignation to Attorney-General Robert Clark after he personally vetoed their unanimous nomination for the top job. The mass exodus turns an uncomfortable spotlight on Mr Clark, who now has a compelling case to answer both about his decision to reject the board's nomination, as well as his political position on the human rights infrastructure established by the previous government.
It is easy to understand the board's frustration with the Attorney. The top job has been vacant for nearly a year following the departure of former equal opportunity commissioner Helen Szoke; the board's nomination for a new head was submitted to Mr Clark almost three months ago. His rejection aside, the Attorney's delay alone suggests a degree of contempt for the commission's work. (Unsurprisingly, the only board member prepared to indulge the Attorney is the only one he has hand-picked, the rest being Labor appointees.)
The Attorney correctly points out that by law he has the final say on the appointment of a commissioner. By no means should he rubber-stamp the decision to endorse a candidate he has judged to be inadequate. But when a board of accomplished professionals throws its unanimous support behind a particular individual- after a thorough recruitment and interview process- the Attorney is obliged to explain why he chose to flout the recommendation.
His assertion that the nominee lacked ''sufficient background or experience in areas required by a commissioner'', simply invites more questions. Is he therefore accusing the board of stunning incompetence? If the members indeed nominated someone inexperienced as their chief then that conclusion naturally follows. Indeed, the board members interpreted his decision as effectively a declaration of no-confidence in them.
It is time for the Attorney to declare frankly his stance on the rights agenda as a whole. His preference to curtail the reach of the state's landmark human rights charter is well known, even if his view has not prevailed in cabinet. His latest decision suggests he's pursuing his agenda by stealth, and wants to put his stamp on the commission. It is the wrong approach. If the Attorney wants a new rights regime then he should prosecute his case in the court of public opinion.