Politics can have a distinct ‘Groundhog Day’ quality, especially when it comes to our Human Rights Commissioner it seems.
It feels like yesterday the #IStandWithGillianTriggs hashtag was trending across Australia. I took a strong stand in February supporting our Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs, noting her role is not intended to act as an agent for the government of the day:
The [Australian Human Rights Commission] is an independent statutory body. It does not exist to serve the political agenda or ideology of the government of the day.
The Vue Post
Unfortunately, the government attacked Gillian Triggs yet again, over a speech she reportedly made to a Committee for Economic Development of Australia forum in Adelaide. It was clear there would be excitement over some of her comments when The Australian immediately published an article covering them.
According to reports, Gillian Triggs responded to a question from the audience:
Have we thought about what the consequences are of pushing people back to our neighbour Indonesia? Is it any wonder that Indonesia will not engage with us on other issues that we care about, like the death penalty?
The Australian reported this comment with the sensationalist headline: ‘Deaths of Bali duo “linked to boats”: Gillian Triggs‘.
This was the equivalent of waving a red flag in front of a bull for the Coalition government. Drawing on the sensationalist, and most likely completely inaccurate, headline in The Australian, Attorney-General George Brandis and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton issued an extraordinary joint statement and Peter Dutton was promptly unleashed on television, demanding a retraction of the comments in question and an apology.
George Brandis, the nation’s first law officer and a QC, should know better from a rule of law perspective. Not too long ago he also saw it fit to valiantly defend the notion that freedom of speech includes the ‘right to be a bigot‘, and again he chose to take an issue with our Human Rights Commissioner speaking out on … human rights.
It also beggars belief, and reality, for Peter Dutton to suggest that advocating human rights could be separated from politics. Especially in circumstances where human rights breaches are caused by government policies. Peter Dutton also seems to overlook the very reason for the existence of the Australian Human Rights Commission, and its statutory responsibilities.
Our statutory responsibilities include:
- education and public awareness
- discrimination and human rights complaints
- human rights compliance
- policy and legislative development.
We do this through:
- resolving complaints of discrimination or breaches of human rights under federal laws
- holding public inquiries into human rights issues of national importance
- developing human rights education programs and resources for schools, workplaces and the community
- providing independent legal advice to assist courts in cases that involve human rights principles
- providing advice and submissions to parliaments and governments to develop laws, policies and programs
- undertaking and coordinating research into human rights and discrimination issues.
As for the allegation by Peter Dutton that the Human Rights Commissioner is overly critical of the Coalition government, and Labor had escaped her scrutiny, it’s worth noting Gillian Triggs, appointed on 30 July 2012, was only a year into her five-year term when the government had changed. Prior to that, she had in fact butted heads with the Labor government but those occasions didn’t become huge news stories, because the Labor government didn’t respond in the same hysterical fashion as the Coalition government routinely does:
- Warnings from human rights groups on Nauru (PM, ABC, 12 September 2012)
- UN report criticises offshore processing plan (ABC News, 12 October 2012)
- Nauru a ‘breach’ of rights (The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November 2012)
- Christmas Island ‘harsh’ and overcrowded: human rights report (The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 December 2012)
- Aspects of anti-discrimination law changes ‘go too far’ (ABC News, 22 January 2013)
- Official barred from visits to Nauru, Manus Island (The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 2013)
- Time for rethink on asylum seeker treatment (The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April 2013)
- Govt slammed for sending back Sri Lankans (Herald Sun, 19 April 2013)
- Senate hears Human Rights Commission’s concerns over legal aid given to asylum seekers (ABC News, 30 May 2013)
- Evidence is lacking for crackdown on boat arrivals: commissioner (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 July 2013)
There is no transcript of the speech in question but, speaking to ABC, Gillian Triggs reiterated she was responding to a question from the audience and talked about Australia’s efforts generally to abolish the death penalty in the region and did not draw a direct link with the Bali Nine executions. She later explained:
My remarks in response to questions from the audience at the Economic Development of Australia forum in Adelaide have been entirely misreported by some commentators.
I was making the observation that any solution to the movement of asylum seekers and refugees in our region should be by diplomatic negotiation.
Like most Australians, I believe a strong diplomatic relationship with Indonesia, and all nations within the Asian region, is vitally important to us all.
At no time did I refer to the recent executions of the two young Australians. Rather I spoke of the future need to work diplomatically to reach agreement on ending the death penalty in the region. This reflected my early public commentary on the need for a moratorium on the death penalty.
In any event, Gillian Triggs is simply doing what a Human Rights Commissioner is supposed to do: monitoring the government’s human rights record and speaking out when she identifies issues and shortcomings. In doing so, she dared to denounce our treatment of asylum seekers, including children in detention, she warned of executive overreaches and the dangers of giving ministers further powers without proper checks and balances, and queried if our policy of unilaterally turning back asylum seeker boats may have an effect on Indonesia, and other neighbouring countries, engaging ‘with us on other issues that we care about, like the death penalty’.
Perhaps these are not matters the government likes to have raised, but they fall squarely within the scope of the roles and responsibilities of our Human Rights Commissioner, and she would be remiss not to address them.
The government’s glass jaw response to Gillian Triggs’ comments smacks of desperation and appear designed to deflect criticism over policies and actions which arguably breach international law and norms, and go against the most basic standards of human decency.
Brian Burdekin, Australia’s first federal Human Rights Commissioner, reportedly went as far as stating that Tony Abbott’s government appears to be running an orchestrated campaign to ‘destabilise or even destroy’ the Australian Human Rights Commission:
I’m not sure whether the prime minister’s presiding over it or whether he’s orchestrating it but [it appears to be] a campaign to denigrate, debilitate and I think possibly destabilise or even destroy an independent commission, a commission established by law in our country by the parliament to protect our human rights, including from violation by ministers in the executive government.
If that were to occur all Australians wold lose and we simply cannot allow that to happen.
If an orchestrated campaign to destroy the Australian Human Rights Commission sounds a little too far-fetched, let’s not forget the Coalition government’s 2013 appointment of Tim Wilson.
Before his appointment Tim Wilson was the Policy Director of the Institute of Public Affairs, a ‘conservative think-tank’. In that role he was one of the nation’s most vociferous critics of the Commission and had repeatedly called for its abolition.