Junk Explained: Why Won’t The Government Stop Yelling At Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs?

Tony Abbott says he's "lost confidence" in her ability to do her job. What'd she do?

Gillian Triggs

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Here’s a bizarre timeline for you.

In July 2013, President of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs noted that there were a concerning number of children — 1,992 — being detained in Australian detention centres. This was especially concerning because of the fact it breaches two UN treaties about civil and political rights, to which Australia is a signatory.

After keeping an eye on it — and the new Coalition government’s relevant policies after the federal election — she decided to launch a national inquiry into the matter; an act which is within the bounds of her duties as dictated by the Australian Human Rights Commission Act. Resolving “breaches of human rights under federal laws” is literally the definition of her job.

Then, after eight months of research including visits to 11 detention centres, interviews and surveys with 1,129 detainees, five public hearings, and 239 submissions from NGOs, schools and medical organisations, the HRC published their findings in October last year. The report found that there were 800 children detained with an average stay of 14 months. It found that mental health problems were rampant among these children and during the period of the inquiry, there were 128 documented incidents of self harm, 33 incidents of sexual assault and 27 cases of voluntary starvation.


Submission No 194 – Name withheld – Child detained in Nauru OPC

Now, two weeks after this report was released to the public in February, nothing has been done to enact its recommendations — that all children be released from detention and legislation be put in place to restrict processing times, for example — and Triggs finds herself facing a Senate Estimates hearing with the Attorney-General baying for her resignation.

How the hell did this happen?

The Human Rights Commission “Should Be Ashamed”

Yup. When faced with this thorough report — which details the various ways in which his government are failing their obligations under international law and jeopardising the mental health of hundreds of children — Tony Abbott chose to take the moral high ground.

But, this isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. Abbott is essentially protesting that his government are being given the blame for a mess which was essentially created by those before him. The number of children in detention was much higher under both the Rudd and Gillard governments and yet an inquiry was not put forward until the federal election when the Liberals took charge.

“It would be a lot easier to respect the Human Rights Commission if it did not engage in what are transparent stitch-ups,” he said.

When questioned about this, Triggs notes that the Commission actually were quite active during the Labor years and were only incited to perform the inquiry in 2013 once outside circumstances such as the Arab Spring saw our number of asylum seekers reach a record high.

“Both sides of politics are responsible for their treatment of children in immigration detention since 1992,” Triggs wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. “The focus should remain on the substance of the report. Please do not shoot the messenger. The commission is doing its job.”

As New Matilda note, this kind of bi-partisanship is in fact backed up in the inquiry itself.

With that in mind — as well as that political arsenic Tony Abbott took when he declared he had “no guilt” about the suffering of innocent children — it’s hard to see this whole drama as anything more than this:

Triggs On Trial 

The Senate estimate hearing which kicked off yesterday has been used as a forum to discuss these grievances, and Triggs has been repeatedly pressured to defend the timing of her report. As the HRC is an independent body, Triggs can’t be fired from her role by the government, but that doesn’t mean they can’t really let ‘er have it.

Attorney-General George Brandis started proceedings by suggesting that Triggs made a “terrible error of judgment” in the timing of the Forgotten Children report. “I felt the political impartiality of the commission had been fatally compromised,” he said before dropping this confusingly glib and upsetting truth bomb.

Brandis was then flanked by other LNP senators as they launched into their full-scale attack.

A day after being accused of bullying Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young with a line of questioning so condescending it reportedly left women “quietly gasping in the audience,” Senator Ian MacDonald was one of the first to offer his condemnation of the HRC. (For those of you playing at home, yes, he was the same dude who wore a hi-vis vest in Parliament.)

“I haven’t bothered to read the final report because I think it is partisan,” he said, sounding suspiciously like the kid trying to justify not doing his homework in your Year 9 English class.

“With so much time and money being spent on children’s welfare, how can anyone call them ‘forgotten children’?” MacDonald asked, hoping his incisive criticism of the title would be enough to get him a solid C.

Triggs quickly replied saying she didn’t fully understand his question and MacDonald went and took a piss in the corner.


Tough day at the office m8.

Senator Barry O’Sullivan then took over the interrogation of the HRC by bombarding Triggs with questions about the report and trying to silence others in the room from speaking out. “Oh dear, oh dear, Penny, settle down,” he said, when long-time Labor Senator Penny Wong came to her defence.

On one of these occasions, where he butted into conversation about very pertinent events, he even turned to the committee chairman (old mate MacDonald) and said, “I thought you might like to hear a male voice.”

Though Senator Hanson-Young pointed out the inappropriateness of the comment, Hi-Vis Elevator Wizz wouldn’t have a bar of it, quickly dismissing the concerns.

But, in the midst of all this, the LNP senators didn’t even acknowledge the bombshell Triggs had just dropped on the government. Speaking of the pressures she’d faced to resign in recent months, Triggs claimed she was approached by the secretary of the attorney-general’s department Chris Moraitis with an offer for “other work in the government”.

Though Moraitis denies the specifics, Triggs claims that he asked for her resignation on behalf of the attorney-general while offering the job which, by many people’s standards, could be considered an inducement into quitting.

The federal opposition have now asked the police to investigate the allegation, with Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus writing a formal letter to the AFP Commissioner on the matter stating that the alleged actions of the Attorney-General’s office “may constitute corrupt and unlawful behaviour”.

The tables have officially turned.


Despite the government’s best efforts, support for Gillian Triggs has increased exponentially. Though an enormous group of people were already on board with her cause — remember, she fights for the rights of tiny children in detention centres — the vilification she has faced seems to have started a movement unto itself.

The hashtag #IStandWithGillianTriggs has been trending nationally for the past 24 hours.

And the appeals are not just confined to Twitter. This week a group of 48 respected individuals and legal professionals, including Malcolm Fraser and Julian Burnside, have joined forces to pen a letter to the Prime Minister himself.

“We write to express our support for the Australian Human Rights Commission and our admiration for its work,” it reads. “We express our profound dismay at your highly personal attacks on Professor Triggs.”

Prof. Triggs took office as President in July 2012 and it is hardly surprising that the report covers a period involving both the previous Labor Government and the Coalition. The report is sharply critical of the approach of both Governments and any suggestion that it attacks one and excuses the other is demonstrably false.”

Perhaps because of this — and the fact he’s most likely about to throw Tony Abbott a purple wedding — Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has today spoken out against the government’s treatment of the HRC.

“The issue is not Gillian Triggs, or personalities, or arguments about the Human Rights Commission, the issue is the children,” he said, dazzling every Australian voter with his ability to sound like a regular human.

Time will tell if statements like that actually enact any change.