Human rights

The long crucifixion of Gillian Triggs

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Gone but not forgotten (Image via @PeterWMurphy1)

The Coalition Government spent years demonising Gillian Triggs for daring to prick their conscience on Australia's abysmal recent human rights record, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

“Were I to receive warm and congratulatory words from the government on a constant basis I think that taxpayers would be justified in asking for my resignation because I wouldn’t be doing my job.”

~ Professor Gillian Triggs, former Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Jun 12, 2015

It says much that the diligent protection of human rights in Australia by its main office holder is deemed less important than a stumble in procedure. The resolute, batter-proof Gillian Triggs, having stepped down from being the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, has had more effigies burnt in the halls of Canberra – symbolically or otherwise – than any other figure. They do that sort of thing well in one of the world’s more isolated capitals.

In 2012, as dean of the University of Sydney’s law school, Triggs received an offer to take over the statutory post of AHRC president. Then Attorney-General Nicola Roxon was keen to find an international lawyer for the position.

By 2015, Triggs and her organisation had rumbled the establishment with the Forgotten Children report, one that found, predictably, the enervating, ruinous effects of prolonged periods of detention of children.  Members of the Coalition government sensed something rotten, largely because of the timing of its release. Why had Labor not received a similar tongue lashing?  

Triggs responded to this rather blandly in the One Plus One program hosted by Jane Hutcheon:

“I had no expectation that continuing the work of the Commission was doing would cause any difficulty at all.” 

Enchantingly naïve, in many ways, the Commissioner, after giving it four months, pressed the Inquiry to its penultimate conclusion, given the Coalition’s lethargy in releasing children from the detention facilities. Labor’s record, she surmised, had been better.

The prime minister of the time, Tony Abbott, demanded her head. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton described the contrarian views of the AHRC “a disgrace”.

Attorney-General George Brandis was charged with the task of asking her to step down, offering her another appointment in lieu.

“The Human Rights Commission, in my view, is an important national institution but it has to be like Caesar’s wife, it must both be and be seen to be above partisan politics.”

Triggs emphatically refused. 

As she explained at the time with steely resolve: 

“Were I to succumb to these highly personal responses to the work of the Commission, that would undermine the independence of the Commission.”

Not being successful on that score, other tactics were adopted by the critics. Triggs was taken to task for her continued handling of the Queensland University of Technology case against students involving s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Ditto that regarding the late cartoonist Bill Leak.

Depending on which account you preferred, she was accused of deliberately misrepresenting the evidence (a case of malice), to that of being forgetful (a case of incompetence).  A fairer account would have been to reproach, rather than to revile, the Commissioner for not terminating the investigations earlier for want of evidence. Her sin, in that case, was an enthusiasm to see that no rights had been violated.

The Coalition could also count on support from former Human Rights Commissioner Sev Ozdowski, who accused Triggs, rather than the Government, of politicising the office:

“Because of the politicisation of the commission, there will be an enormous job for a new president to re-establish its reputation.”

Such a view assumes, with total inaccuracy, that human rights exist in some objective vessel separate from its cynical violators.

In an interview with Radio National’s Breakfast program on July 26, Triggs was in little mood to frost the glass on a tenure that has been marked by verbal assault, castigation and brute cynicism from opponents in the Murdoch media, the Coalition Government and black letter lawyers. Her office has been mauled by pollster watching jackals in an establishment keen to invert the humanitarian cause. In fact, as Triggs reminded listeners, Abbott, when in Opposition, had campaigned to have the AHRC abolished altogether.

This is a government, she asserted to Fran Kelly, that is “ideologically opposed to human rights”, with Australia’s human rights “regressing on almost every front”.

This unremarkable statement sent the political hustlers and cant merchants into howls of rage. It was “unreasonable” to even suggest that the Australian Government was indifferent to the cruelties of detention and de facto incarceration of no defined length. 

It was outrageous to suggest that the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention was deemed a hollow letter — a wistful reflection that has lost its relevance. And it was outrageous to suggest that the office of the most conspicuous human rights body in Australia had been tarred and feathered, piled upon for not being hard enough in order to be good enough.

Triggs would have been far better to have said that Australia’s governments, spawned from either side of the extremist centre, never really changed on this score. The same arguments against naval arrivals are only slightly retooled for the same object, treating them as a different order of asylum seeker or refugee.

Triggs was never a political figure in the strictest sense of that station, but her office was invariably radicalised. It was little wonder, then, that she became, by default, a conspicuous player on the scene when it came to children in detention, or the broader problems of Manus Island and Nauru. Human rights are avoidably political matters.

Unaccustomed to the sewage-styled meanderings of parliamentarians and party hacks, Triggs insisted on observing the letter of a law that has been silenced. 

Her grand refusal entailed an embrace of advocacy, the biggest of don’ts in the Australian human rights sector. For that very fact, she should be remembered.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @bkampmark.

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