Top lawyers and former PM Fraser slam Abbott's attacks on Triggs and AHRC

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Former Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser says Tony Abbott is a "bully-boy" (Image by Shaun Minahan)

PM Tony Abbott's assertions about "good government" starting this week looked even more shaky after Australia’s two peak legal bodies, as well with former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser condemned remarks he made about Human Rights Commission (AHRC) President Professor Gillian Triggs and the AHRC.

The prime minister, who caused outrage amongst his own party this week by sacking Liberal Party elder statesman Philip Ruddock as chief whip, has another headache as the presidents of the Australian Bar Association and the Law Council of Australia, as well as a former Liberal PM, all strongly condemned the attacks on Triggs.

The attacks were largely instigated by Tony Abbott himself, who launched an angry and extended attack on the integrity and credibility of Professor Triggs and the Human Rights Commission both in Parliament and the media after the release of The Forgotten Children report

The report came after a more than a year long inquiry by the statutory body and called for a royal commission into the detention of children under both the Labor and Coalition Governments.

However, the Report was immediately labelled a "transparent stitch up" and "a blatantly partisan politicised exercise" in comments made by PM Abbott on Thursday. He went further, saying Triggs "should be ashamed of herself" and instead of releasing the report should instead be "sending a note of congratulations to [former Immigration Minister] Scott Morrison. The prime minister's attacks were echoed by other senior Coalition figures.

In a rare joint statement issued Saturday (14/2/15), Fiona McLeod SC, president of the Australian Bar Association and Duncan McConnel, president of the Law Council of Australia, labelled the attacks on Triggs and the Commission as "unprecedented" and "alarming".

From the statement:

'The leaders of Australia’s two peak bodies representing all Australian lawyers have taken the unusual step of issuing a joint statement because of the unprecedented attack on the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission for carrying out her statutory duties.'

Law Council president Fiona McLeod SC stated that the personal criticism of Triggs were an unwarranted attack on the Commission and served to undermine public confidence in the justice system:

“Professor Triggs has a distinguished career in the law and is highly respected. She was the Dean of Sydney Law School and has lectured and written extensively in international law and human rights. Personal criticism directed at her or at any judicial or quasi-judicial officer fulfilling the duties of public office as required by law is an attack upon the independence and integrity of the Commission and undermines confidence in our system of justice and human rights protection."

Abbott's angry outburst was also reportedly condemned by former Liberal Party Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser on the same day, labelling it "foolishness" and "bully-boy" tactics from a prime minister with his "back to the wall"

The Prime Minister has got his back to the wall. He's just survived a near rebellion from his own backbench and he has demonstrated, since then that ... he has not changed; he has not learnt; he has behaved in the same bully-boy fashion, which is a reputation that has haunted him since long before he was Prime Minister.

It is the utmost foolishness because it's going to be one of those things which again are put into the scales against the Government and against the Prime Minister.

The attacks by the lawyers are similar responses by the legal fraternity in Queensland after similar attacks on lawyers and the judiciary by former Premier Campbell Newman's LNP Government, whose short and turbulent time in power formally ended yesterday.

Fiona McLeod said in the statement critics of Triggs should actually read the report, which she said commended the Abbott Government where it was warranted:

“Those who are critical of Professor Triggs and the Commission need only stop and read the Report to see that it is concerned with detention practices of both the current and former government. The Report has welcomed the reduction in numbers of children in detention under this government."

Bar Association president Duncan McConnel said that what is being lost in the debate is the urgent need to minimise harm done to children by immigration detention:

“What is being lost in the commentary is the undeniable fact that the detention of children in immigration detention has been physically and mentally harmful to them. The detailed examination of the issues by the Commission provides government with information upon which it can develop responses aimed at minimising, and hopefully eliminating, the harm caused to children being held in immigration detention. The Law Council is willing to offer any assistance it can in developing practical, achievable reforms to the law that will improve the situation”

The lawyers concluded with a joint statement condemning personal attacks on officials and institutions simply for carrying out their legal duties:

“The Australian Bar Association and Law Council of Australia agree that personal attacks deflect attention from the very serious findings of the Report and place an individual office holder under significant pressure - we cannot tolerate our public officials and institutions being subjected to this barrage for fulfilling their statutory duties. To do so is to compromise the integrity of those institutions charged with holding the government to account."

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