Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs on the ignorance, guile and bully boy tactics of Australian politicians

Excepts from an interview with President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, in The Saturday Paper on 23 April 2016:

Ramona Koval Did you think it was going to be this hard when you started at the commission? 

Gillian Triggs [laughs] No! I had absolutely no idea. I rather naively thought if you’d been dean of a law faculty you could manage anything. I was unprepared for dealing with senior political figures with no education whatsoever about international law and about Australia’s remarkable historical record which they are now diminishing. We’ve got senior public servants who will roll their eyes at the idea of a human right. They say, “Look, Gillian, you’re beating a dead horse.” It’s not going to work, because they can’t talk to the minister in terms of human rights. We’ve had, in my view, very poor leadership on this issue for the past 10 to 15 years, from the “children overboard” lie. They’ve been prepared to misstate the facts and conflate asylum-seeker issues with global terrorism. What I’m saying applies equally to Labor and Liberal and National parties. They’ve used this in bad faith to promote their own political opportunistic positions…..

RK You’ve said, “When I was younger I thought one could build on the past. But I have learned that we need to be eternally vigilant in ensuring human rights in a modern democracy.” Is that a sense of an idea of conservatism, building on the past, not letting go of good things that have been achieved? And feeling that confidence in that idea has been shaken?

GT A shocking phenomenon is Australians don’t even understand their own democratic system. They are quite content to have parliament be complicit with passing legislation to strengthen the powers of the executive and to exclude the courts. They have no idea of the separation of powers and the excessive overreach of executive government. 

RK Sisyphus comes to mind.

GT Well, it’s quite true. One can be astonished at the very simplistic level at which I need to speak. Our parliamentarians are usually seriously ill-informed and uneducated. All they know is the world of Canberra and politics and they’ve lost any sense of a rule of law, and curiously enough for Canberra they don’t even understand what democracy is. Not an easy argument to make, as you can imagine: me telling a parliamentarian they need to be better educated. [laughs] But it’s true.

RK Have you done that?

GT Oh, I have. And I have to say that some parliamentarians, and surprising ones, a Nationals MP, says “Come and give us a seminar.” Another one asked me to come up and work in parliament with the members of a particular committee that she was on. Terrific! But they listened to me and do you know, the response of some of them was, “Well, we had no idea Australia had signed up to these treaties. We should withdraw from them!” So backward steps! You still hear people say we must withdraw from the Refugee Convention or we must withdraw from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights……

RK I was astonished listening to him – how could the chair of the committee say he hadn’t read the report with such pride? 

GT I know. So I could have reacted very angrily to that and I am quite articulate and I can be very strong if I need to be: I could have used those skills, but I determinedly did not. It’s an environment in which I must be respectful, so frankly I thought as a lawyer I’d lose my case if I did [react angrily]. There was a point when I thought, “I’ve had 50 years as a reasonably respectable and quite conservative lawyer, how on earth do I find myself in this situation?” [laughs] But in the end I just had to get through the moment. But there were some lovely little side things, like the public servants behind the scenes, coming around with bowls of Jelly Snakes and Jelly Babies and mini Mars bars. Because we’d had nothing to eat, and they wouldn’t get us any food. The senators and members of the committee were all going off and having lunch. We’d had no breakfast, no morning tea and no lunch and I thought I’d faint, but these wonderful people were coming in and we were grabbing the food and eating it and they were saying [sotto voce], “You do realise that we are not responsible for this, don’t you?”, because some might think the secretariat had fed them these questions. 

RK But it was all the senators’ own work? 

GT With the attorney-general sitting next to me and encouraging it. And he was writing the questions which would be taken by his staff up to one of the senators, so feeding them the questions – an extraordinary experience. People were hugely supportive afterwards. Flowers were coming in. Each one brought a cheer from the staff and eventually it was so full that I couldn’t get in the room anymore. It was almost as though I had died the week before, and I’m thinking I must have missed something because I’m still standing here…….

RK The extent of the hostility and the personal nature of the attacks must have shocked you. 

GT To use those terrible words that the prime minister and especially the attorney-general used: “We have no confidence in Gillian Triggs.” The words reverberated around my head for a very long time. It was a very cruel and unjustified comment and the attempt to get me to resign for another position was a disgraceful thing to do, but it was exposed by the questions in senate. I could have had other options, the possibility of criminal prosecutions of the attorney. 

RK I wondered why you decided against pursuing that avenue? 

GT The AFP did consider it. They dealt with it extremely professionally. They were courteous but I made the decision that the greatest recognition of this wrongdoing was in the senate itself, when the senate censured the attorney for the first time in about 80 years and I felt that this issue was much more political than it was legal. I also wanted to move on, and I think that this underlies a lot of cases that don’t proceed…… 

RK I see that you have not let the 2015 experience cower you. You have made many comments on matters that you have proper concerns in – from marriage equality and Safe Schools programs to calling for monitoring of conditions for asylum seekers and refugees in offshore detention centres to concerns about counterterrorism laws. It looks like, if the government thought they could bully you into submission, they made rather the wrong call.

GT I’ve just turned 70 and I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’m so confident about the law and about the evidence for the law not being respected that I feel very sure-footed in going forward on these other issues. My resilience and determination and experience for a long time in the law give me the determination to get through the remaining 15 months to continue to speak out. When you see that you are being bullied by people who you know are not coming from a good place, you know you don’t have to give in to them. They are cowards and the moment you stand up to them they crumble, and they did crumble. And several now have been seen off long before me. They’re not used to a woman aged 70 standing up to them. They can’t quite believe it. If I were 40 looking for a career opportunity, I probably wouldn’t do what I’ve done because it would have queered the pitch for me professionally. But why do I care now? I can do what I’m trained to do and they almost can’t touch me. And I’ll continue to do that work when I’ve finished with this position.

Read the full article here. 

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