Prof Triggs found herself catapulted into the public eye as a result of The Forgotten Children report. Prior to that she was well known within legal and political circles, both in Australia and overseas, for her work as an academic and barrister. However her previous career would not have prepared her for the polarity of views the mere mention of her name now arouses.
A google search generates a range of opinion pieces from both sides of the political spectrum. Some roundly condemn her; others denounce those who have used a public forum to speak against her.
What Gillian Triggs has experienced is a case study in the changing nature of public dialogue since the advent of social media. No longer do politicians, commentators or the general public remain focused on the issue, they move quickly to personal attack.
Prof Triggs’ private life has become fodder without any space for nuance, context or privacy considerations. Her personal rights seem to have been trampled on, which further accentuates the need for such a body as the Australian Human Rights Commission. Because if someone as accomplished and as senior as Prof Triggs can be so poorly treated, what hope is there for minority groups?
It doesn’t take much effort to think of women in the public forum who, for various reasons, have found themselves on the receiving end of personal and sustained attack. Former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner, Christine Nixon; former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard; Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty; Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin; and Gillian Triggs.
Crosslight asked Prof Triggs why a woman would bother seeking public office when we witness what happens to individual women.
“That is what a lot of people have said to me – ‘why would a woman expose herself to this world of such vicious attack?’ We have seen it in recent years and it is consistent.
“The gender bias – the stereotypical view of women and, for some men, just out and out misogyny – is probably one of the biggest problems Australia faces. I think we have managed multiculturalism and racism quite well but the position in relation to women is what is so disturbing.
“According to the global gender gap index statistics, Australia is actually declining significantly [for women] in terms of salary, appointments, roles in the political environment and so on. Yet we are number one on that global index for an educated female population.”
The AHRC’s Sex Discrimination Commission, under the leadership of Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, has been working at both ends of this issue over the last few years. The Sex Discrimination Commission concluded an extensive report on workplace discrimination related to pregnancy, parental leave and return to work after parental leave.
The report – released last year – showed that discrimination relating to pregnancy and return to work is pervasive and has a cost for everyone.
Also last year, Commissioner Broderick launched Know Where the Line Is, a national campaign on sexual harassment in the workplace. She has also been working with the Male Champions of Change, to improve gender equity and lift female participation in the leadership of the Australian work force.
Looking at the experience of women such as Nixon, Gillard, Batty, Credlin and Triggs, one could argue that each of these women has demonstrated tenacity and toughness. Does Prof Triggs believe that is an important characteristic for a female in leadership?
“I think toughness is important. I am rather intrigued by the fact that some young women do not want to be described as feminists. They don’t like political confrontation. They want to be liked by people.
“I thought being a feminist in the 60s was a badge of pride, you sort of rose to it and there you were! But I think this generation will not play that political game. I think they are not very tough actually.”
However, judging by two public events at which Prof Triggs has recently appeared, a Law Institute luncheon held in Melbourne in July and the Q&A program in June, the audience responded extremely positively to her statements and her leadership.
At the luncheon, fellow lawyers gave her a sustained standing ovation following her speech on the importance of judicial discretion. And following comments from panel member Prof Triggs, Tony Jones had to call an end to the clapping to enable the ABC program to continue. This generation might not be considered tough, but clearly they admire and yearn for strong leadership.
For Prof Triggs, the recipe for leadership is not overly complicated. She believes you need courage, to have put the work in, to get it right and be prepared for long hours.
“The more accurate and evidence-based your work is the more experiences you have and the more disciplined you are, the more likely you are to be successful and to stay the course.
“Women are making some gains in some areas. But women need to get experience, and to take risks to leap to more challenging opportunities. Young women these days are extremely well educated, they are professional, good administrators, and they manage their lives well.
“They do need to be a little more upfront about wanting the promotions and wanting the opportunities.”
Crosslight met Professor Triggs the week following the Sydney Swans-West Coast Eagles clash at which former Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, was booed. As public debate raged as to whether the booing was racist, and then moved into discussion about whether Australia was a racist nation, it seemed timely to put such questions to the President of the Human Rights Commission.
“My own view is that Australians are not really racist, but there are groups of people who are,” Prof Triggs responded.
“We really don’t see racism apart from the types of complaints we get, the incidents on public transport. We sometimes see racism in employment and sometimes in the sporting codes.
“I don’t often agree with Andrew Bolt (Herald Sun columnist and blogger), but I think he is right in saying that we are not a racist country. We have come a very long way.
“Overwhelmingly I think Australians do aspire to the values of a multicultural society.”
Adam Goodes launched the Racism stops with me campaign on behalf of the Human Rights Commission last year. The campaign reminds us that we each play a significant role in either propagating or calling out racist behaviour.
Prof Triggs says the aggressive racism on display at these football games is not particularly common in Australia.
“The kind of racism that we are fighting at the Commission is the more casual or subterranean racism. That arises where somebody doesn’t get a job because the company has never employed a Korean in the workforce, or the business has a stereotypical view of South Pacific Islanders or Indigenous Australians and they don’t employ them.
“That kind of racism we do want to fight through the Commission’s complaints processes.”
However, Prof Triggs is quick to acknowledge that such covert racism is very difficult to prove and therefore address.
“You can demonstrate the aggressive racism on public transport or in a football match, because when people see it they now get out their iphones and send us the videos. So we have got much more documentary evidence of that aggressive form of racism.
“But it is difficult to show that somebody was not selected on the grounds of race where the employer will say there was somebody better qualified.
“It is almost impossible to challenge. But what you can do is question why, in an employment body of a thousand employees you don’t have a single person of the Aboriginal race or a single person from Asia.
“That’s got to tell you something about your workforce and you can start to talk about the lack of diversity in their workplace and try to do something about that.”
Our allotted time was nearly running out and there were so many questions to ask this strong, energetic woman. There was opportunity for two last questions.
One: What does Gillian do for fun?
“The last few years I have let a lot of that side of my life go down.”
What? No time for fun?
“I love gardening. The theatre, music, but we were constantly missing the concerts. Something I really love, and I guess everybody does, I love shopping on a Saturday morning and having a nice dinner at the house and talking with friends.”
And the last question before Prof Triggs’ personal assistant, Kellie, obligingly took a photograph of us together.
“How do you feed your soul, your spirit?”
“I think the garden has always been that for me. Within 10 seconds of walking into the garden I am in a completely different space. But that’s down at Merrijig, in rural Victoria, and I only get there three or four times a year.
“I really get a huge amount of pleasure out of my family. I have just become a grandmother. My husband and I enjoy doing things together. These are the things that feed my soul I think. But my working life at present is not really sustainable. I probably cannot do it for much longer.”
Professor Triggs’ term as President of the AHRC concludes on July 30 2017. Like everything in life, it is for a season.
To read part 1 of Crosslight’s exclusive interview with Prof Triggs, click here.