By Penny Mulvey
In her role as President of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Professor Gillian Triggs has become a prominent public figure, the topic of heated dinner party conversations.
Prof Triggs granted the Uniting Church an interview because she recognised the Church’s commitment to asylum seeker issues and knew that her views would be expressed without distortion or reduced to an attention-grabbing headline.
We met in her corner office at the AHRC in Pitt Street Sydney.
Throughout the last six months, Prof Triggs has endured attacks by no less than four senior members of the Federal Government. All have strongly, and publicly, suggested Prof Triggs resign her position.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Federal Parliament in February that the Government had lost confidence in Prof Triggs. He described The Forgotten Children report as ‘a political stitch up’.
Attorney General George Brandis was censured by the Parliament, in early March, after he accused the AHRC president of a “catastrophic error of judgement” in favouring Labor with the timing of her inquiry into children in detention. The Attorney General is the minister responsible for the Human Rights Commission.
In June, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton openly lambasted Prof Triggs after the Commission President commented on Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. The Attorney General supported Mr Dutton, and they issued a joint media release declaring their displeasure.
Also in June, (before the controversial and highly-discussed media reports relating to a $5000 helicopter flight from Melbourne to Geelong) the then-Parliamentary Speaker of the House, Bronwyn Bishop, suggested live on national TV that Prof Triggs should resign her statutory position. The former barrister and academic had been flung into the path of a vicious storm because of the nature and perceived timing of the report by the AHRC into asylum seeker children held in Australian-managed detention centres.
Gillian Triggs has both a considered manner and a warm and engaging smile. Her compassion for others is evident throughout the conversation. While she acknowledges the asylum seeker issue is fraught, she is strongly of the opinion that it is because the Australian public have been fed the same demonising political response – such as labelling asylum seekers ‘queue jumpers’.
“We all know now there never has been a queue and less than 1 per cent are settled by the so-called orderly or UN process,” Prof Triggs said.
“Overwhelmingly, the majority of people seeking asylum don’t come that way and cannot come that way.
“Frankly it is a combination of fear that, since 9/11, politicians have taken advantage of. They have given into an extreme right-wing group, which is I think a minority in Australia, but it has tended to dominate the political agenda. So we have got a conflation of issues in asylum seeker matters where, in the public mind, they have become somewhat intertwined. So people from Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq could also be terrorist threats to Australia.
“It is an illogical position but, from the children overboard in the Tampa crisis through to 9/11 and now, 14 years later, we have had pretty much the same political response. Demonising asylum seekers, calling them illegals and linking them at least by implication to threats to Australia.”
For Prof Triggs, it is not a political issue, it is a matter of the law.
“In the legal [realm] it is fairly clear that we have an obligation to people who seek our protection.
“Stopping boats, and failing to rescue and assess those who claim our protection, is contrary to international law. That is pretty clear.
“One could say that by stopping the boats and taking them to a safe haven you might be saving lives, stopping people from drowning and stopping the people smugglers. These have got to be good policies.
“But the sadness of our policy is that we have pushed people back into already overcrowded developing countries, such as Indonesia.”
Prof Triggs acknowledges that the Human Rights Commission’s vehement opposition to the current policies relating to asylum seekers creates a challenge for the government because of its indisputable success in stopping the boats.
“…that (stopping the boats) is what the Government sees as one of its greatest achievements. For the Australian Human Rights Commission, and me, to be challenging those policies, that cuts to a raw nerve for the Government. I think that is why it has attracted so much vitriol.”
The AHRC is a national independent statutory body established under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986. Within its remit are matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice; age discrimination; children; disability discrimination; human rights; race discrimination and sex discrimination. Each of these areas is headed by a commissioner exercising functions relating to specific Acts of Parliament.
According to the 2013-2014 Annual Report, the Human Rights Commission received nearly 20,000 enquiries, relating to disability discrimination; general employment matters including harassment and bullying; discrimination on grounds covered by the Sex Discrimination Act; racial discrimination including racial hatred and human rights-related issues, including immigration and immigration detention.
Prof Triggs stresses that staff of the Commission can only operate on the basis of the legal provisions, which provide their mandate under the Human Rights Commission statute. As a result, they find themselves on a different playing field to journalists and even politicians, who do not usually couch their arguments in law, “and can make political judgements and policy judgements that are beyond what we are authorised to do.”
However, there is power in sticking to the law, as was evidenced in the special Q&A program in June, filmed in Parliament House to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. A question from formerly-detained asylum seeker child Mohammad Ali Baqiri led to an icy debate between Gillian Triggs and the then-Parliamentary Speaker of the House, Bronwyn Bishop. Ms Bishop took exception to Prof Triggs comments relating to The Forgotten Children report, reiterating the Government’s line that the timing of the report made the president ‘a very political figure’.
“As I said before, you have to make the decision – are you a statutory officer carrying out an obligation with the protection of that office or are you a political participant? If you do, you have to no longer be a statutory officer,” Ms Bishop said.
Prof Triggs calmly but decisively responded to this renewed call for her to resign by reminding the panel and the audience that the work of the Human Rights Commission is according to the law and, as such, operates in ‘a very neutral way’.
“I am a statutory officer and that is a position of independence which allows me to speak, based on evidence and based on the law as truthfully as I can…and that is what I believe I have been doing.”
Reflecting on this interaction as we sat in her sunlit office, bookshelves stacked with heavy tomes, folders and the occasional personal item, she again referred to the law.
“Instead of responding to the Bronwyn Bishop attacks, I concentrated on the audience and the questions that they were asking of me. Tony Jones allowed that to happen. It meant that I didn’t have to criticise her or even respond to what she had said. I just kept making the message about asylum seeker rights and how this worked globally.”
Prof Triggs is not the first AHRC president to find themselves under personal attack in response to their work. She named the former High Court judge and President of the Uniting Church (1988-1991), Sir Ronald Wilson, as another president who was on the receiving end of sustained criticism in the wake of the 1997 Bringing Them Home report into the stolen generations.
“He would be one of the most highly regarded people ever to hold this position as president,” Prof Triggs explained.
“He took a very strong view in relation to stolen children and argued, in fact, that it constituted genocide. This got him in an enormous amount of trouble.
“Part of the criticism of him was that the Uniting Church had been responsible for taking children, so it was hypocritical for him to argue against this. Now, of course, it is a ridiculous position to take. It may very well be that the Church played a role in the earlier decades, but certainly it was nothing to do with him, and nothing to do with contemporary views of the Church.”
While speaking out on human rights issues does seem to shine the spotlight on those who inhabit the role of president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, the degree of personal attack directed at the current president is unprecedented. Her private life has been trawled through, and right-wing commentators have been quite toxic in the vehemence of their commentary. How does one prepare for that?
“The truth is, it has never happened to me before. I have been a practising lawyer for 47 years. I have never, ever, ever had any criticism of my work or my good faith so this is sort of unprecedented.
“It is the last thing you expect to happen as you move into the later years of your life. I will be 70 this year. How could I ever have prepared myself for this?”
However, in the midst of an avalanche of public shaming, Prof Triggs has felt the affirmation of the Australian public. People she meets as she walks to her office stop to encourage her. People in the supermarket, on public transport, her colleagues at work and her family and friends have provided great reassurance and confidence to remain on message.
“I think the government underestimated the power of people to see through the attacks. As well as the fact that I am so certain the law and the obligations that we are talking about are accurate. They are obligations of Australia and we cannot ignore them.
“Also, Australia is so out of tune with the rest of the world.
“It is an extraordinary phenomenon; we like to think we are so progressive, but the truth is we are decades behind much of Europe and North America and sadly we are rather smug in our views of ourselves.
“We can only do that because we are such an isolated island and we are isolated also within our own region because we have such a different cultural, religious, racial and legal background to most of the rest of Asia that we can get away with that behaviour in our region.”
Gillian Triggs is not backing down. She might be small in stature, but her words are unflinching, clear and spoken without hesitation. This president will not kowtow to government of either persuasion. Her term is for five years and she has just under two years remaining.
Prof Triggs will continue to rely on the law, as she has done for nearly 50 years, to call it as she sees it. The people of Australia can be confident that the Australian Human Rights Commission is in good hands.
In Part 2 of the Gillian Triggs interview, we discuss racism, leadership and work-life balance. You can read Part 2 here.