Disband the HRC immediately. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/human-rights-commissions-gillian-triggs-leaves-an-inglorious-legacy/news-story/cea2cde1ff6c0206fe12caed6bedc895
Gillian Triggs, who this week ends her five-year term as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, created unprecedented controversy around the commission. Her actions made her a hate figure for the culture warriors of the political right and a champion of the virtue signallers of the left.
Both views of the president no doubt overstated her impact on public policy and national debate. But it seemed to be her decision to seize the limelight and become a surrogate for the great social policy battles of our time that made her a proxy who personifies for some the nanny-state moralising and sanctimonious criticism of mainstream values by the elites, and for others the sophisticated globalism and multilateral humanitarianism that is unafraid to critique Australia’s performance.
The contradictions are many for this quietly spoken legal academic who has become a polarising political figure.
Professor Triggs: ‘I’ve done a terrific job’
Triggs allowed Queensland University of Technology students to be pursued through her commission for years over unremarkable Facebook posts yet was given an award in honour of free speech; she delayed a public inquiry into children in detention for 18 months while thousands of children were sent into camps but is lauded as their champion; and she promotes diversity, gender equity and nonviolence yet recommended an asylum-seeker who bashed his pregnant wife to death be given compensation for being detained.
Perhaps there is no better way to illustrate the distorted politics and deformed priorities of the AHRC under Triggs than to recount the organisation’s Christmas drinks of 2014. Among the guests sipping bubbles at the swanky affair in the Museum of Contemporary Art at Sydney’s Circular Quay was a man who had fought alongside the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Taliban, trained with terrorist groups including Lashkar-e-Toiba and al-Qa’ida, met “lovely brother” Osama bin Laden and had railed against what he called the “Jewish propaganda war machine”.
David Hicks, who was held at Guantanamo Bay after being picked up in Afghanistan guarding a Taliban tank, had become a hero of the human rights set — not for recanting his Jew-hating, weapons-training and jihad-cheering ways but for portraying himself as a victim of US-Australian anti-terror overreach. So, at the gallery drinks, he mingled with lawyers and activists before heckling during Attorney-General George Brandis’s speech.
This episode is far more remarkable than many may think — especially those, such as Triggs, who would even contemplate having Hicks at such a function — because it demonstrates just how far the human rights organisation strayed from the commitment to freedom, fairness and decency that may be expected by the taxpayers who fund it. Whatever Hicks says about the way he was treated at Guantanamo (and a standard rule in terror groups is to allege torture if captured) we know from his own words that he trained for and supported “jihad in weapons” and wanted to “go fighting in the war of God against the friends of Satan”.
Yet here he was at the taxpayer-funded human rights organisation’s annual drinks, hosted by Triggs, yelling at the Attorney-General — who, as it happened, was also at odds with Triggs over the way she was running the commission. Here was the human rights lobby revealed: Merry Christmas, jihad is not over.
Only three weeks earlier it seemed the AHRC president’s standing had collapsed during a public hearing of the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee in Canberra. In what was perhaps one of the most disastrous performances by a public official at such an appearance, Triggs contradicted herself numerous times and generated grave doubts at the top of government about the politicisation of the AHRC.
The focus was the timing of the commission’s inquiry into children in immigration detention. Under questioning, Triggs revealed she had been seized of this issue and the need for a fresh inquiry from her first days as president after being appointed by the Gillard Labor government in July 2012, when thousands of asylum-seekers were arriving in boats. She believed there needed to be a new inquiry into children in detention — but she did not call one.
The core question — then and now — was why Triggs failed to call the inquiry under Labor when children were going into detention in record numbers but waited until early 2014 — after the Coalition had taken office, the boats had been stopped and children were no longer going into detention but were being moved out.
In the hearing her attempts to justify this were tortuous and contradictory. Triggs blamed delays in early 2013 on electoral considerations, saying an “election was imminent” and that “we knew it was going to be very soon” but “we didn’t know exactly” when.
Aside from the fact politics should be irrelevant in such decisions, Triggs had this all terribly wrong. In January 2013, prime minister Julia Gillard had taken the unusual step of naming the election date for September; so Triggs’s ex post facto justification for delay could not be true.
Yet there was worse to come in this Senate committee train wreck. Triggs was asked whether she had discussed the possibility of holding the inquiry with the immigration minister while Labor was in office. “I certainly did not discuss that as far as I recall with the minister,” she said.
Questioning continued on this point and Triggs’s answers began to shift. Pressed on possible discussions with Labor ministers, she later said: “I don’t recall.”
Later still she suggested she shouldn’t answer the question because “discussions with the minister are private”.
Eventually, after an arduous interrogation, Triggs revealed she had discussed the issue with not just one but two Labor immigration ministers. “I have discussed the possibility of an inquiry with minister Chris Bowen and with minister (Tony) Burke,” she admitted, stunning the committee.
This testimony led to the government instantly losing all faith in Triggs’s presidency; it poisoned her relationship with the Coalition and put the commission and the government at loggerheads. The prime challenge now for Triggs’s successor, Rosalind Croucher, is to rebuild government confidence and public faith in the institution — and to depoliticise it.
The AHRC’s grandiose aims are a world away from the egalitarian pragmatism of mainstream Australians. Its website talks about a “vision” for Australia where “human rights are enjoyed by everyone, everywhere, every day”.
Most taxpayers will think their nation shapes up quite well on this front but the commission is hypercritical. From race commissioner Tim Soutphommasane drumming up complaints of racism against The Australian’scartoonist Bill Leak, to Triggs campaigning against border protection policies that save lives, stop people going into detention and have the overwhelming support of the public, the commission puts itself at odds with the people who fund it.
Malcolm Turnbull often tells us this nation is the most successful multicultural society in the world but Triggs and her commission seem to have disabused us of that notion. To be sure, there is something otherworldly about these publicly funded bodies that will always set them apart from the public they serve — to sample the silliness, just check the AHRC website where, for instance, it proclaims that “human rights principles are fundamentally embedded within the principles of ecological sustainable development” as it goes on to highlight its commitment to Earth Hour.
But Triggs has deepened the gulf between her $25 million-a-year organisation and the public it serves. Indeed, whether it is telling us that popular and bipartisan border protection policies are morally repugnant or that Australians are prone to racism, the commission often sets itself openly against the mainstream. This is why, for conservatives, Triggs has become emblematic of the elite’s disdain for common sense and national values. And it is why, for the green left, her mistakes and contradictions are overlooked in favour of her pontification and the discomfort she has caused the Coalition.
Unsurprisingly this has given rise to a strong perception of partisanship. Triggs has been lauded by Labor and the Greens while being condemned by Coalition MPs. She delivered this year’s Hobart Oration for the Bob Brown Foundation (the supposed free speech advocate uttered the incongruous line that “sadly, you can say what you like around the kitchen table”) and on Saturday she will launch a book for Labor senator Sam Dastyari.
Triggs is portrayed as a martyr by the left, an assessment she encourages in the soft interviews she occasionally grants to the ABC and Fairfax Media.
She has accused The Australian of pursuing a vendetta against her and even accused it of not seeking her views — another erroneous claim disproved by emails and other messages.
Inexplicably, that pivotal and dramatic November 20, 2014, Senate committee appearance, despite being available on video and in Hansard, has never been reported by the national broadcaster. This is even more astonishing given it relates to the issues of border protection and children in detention that have been journalistic obsessions at the ABC. Dozens, if not hundreds, of journalists apparently have been prepared to censor the ABC’s coverage of this crucial moment for Triggs and the nation’s management of this controversial issue — presumably because it didn’t suit their agenda.
So entrenched is this self-imposed censorship that last month when Triggs consented to a long farewell interview with the ABC’s Jane Hutcheon, an incredible admission went unreported and unremarked on by the national broadcaster.
Here, five years after Triggs first realised an inquiry was warranted into children in detention but decided to delay it, 3½ years after she finally called it and 2½ after she hopelessly bungled her public explanation of the delay, Triggs finally and belatedly admitted error.
“I could have done it earlier but I wanted to see if the behind-the-scenes efforts could work,” she said of the inquiry into children in detention. “Perhaps now, looking back, I think it might have been wiser to have moved much earlier … maybe even while Labor was still there.”
The ABC ran no news stories of this concession. Yet here, in her final weeks, Triggs had conceded the core criticism made against her for the past three years.
Back in 2012 and 2013 she made an appalling call to delay that inquiry. And instead of conceding the point and fixing it, she has seen the commission caught up for the past three years in the debilitating distraction of defending her error as well as her oversight of other issues — especially the pursuit of Leak and the QUT students over unjustified racial discrimination complaints.
The irresistible conclusion — on which supporters and critics can surely agree — is that at the end of Triggs’s term the AHRC is in need of a strong defence. It is an inglorious legacy.