At a Senate estimates committee hearing yesterday, Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs was attacked by the federal Attorney General and a number of Liberal Senators. In Question Time, the onslaught was continued by the Prime Minister.
Why? Because in fulfilling her duty as the president of the HRC, she released a report detailing the ongoing human rights abuses Australia is committing by keeping children in mandatory and indefinite detention – something that occurs in no other country on earth.
The prime minister called it a “political stitch up”. The attorney general said he had “lost confidence in the president of the Human Rights Commission”. Liberal senators questioned her decision to undertake the inquiry into children in detention, questioned the timing of the report, and even suggested she had chosen an inappropriate name for the report on purpose.
“With so much time and money being spent on children’s welfare, how can anyone call them forgotten children?” Senate estimates chairman Ian McDonald asked.
The most damning revelation was the attorney general’s offer of another legal role for Triggs – in return for her resignation from the HRC.
Why? Why is the pre-eminent international lawyer the subject of such personal attacks?
Many Liberal politicians argue it is justified by the content of the Forgotten Children report, which they say unfairly targets them.
This doesn’t add up.
The possibility that the attacks are based on the content of the report can be readily dismissed in the case of chairman Ian McDonald, who admitted yesterday – in an official parliamentary hearing – that he has never even read it.
It seems unlikely he is alone. Many of the other senior politicians attacking Triggs are giving a rather convincing impression they haven’t read the report either.
If they had, they would know that it lays the blame for the situation with both the former Labor government and the current coalition government.
“It is also clear that the laws, policies and practices of Labor and Coalition Governments are in serious breach of the rights guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
The report is explicit that there are far fewer children in detention now, than there were under the previous government.
Does that preclude Australia from any obligations? No. Whether there are two children in detention or 2000 our obligations are the same, and they are quite clearly being breached.
MPs and senators like Ian McDonald would know this if they had actually read the report.
The notion that these attacks are based entirely on the content, timing and even title of the report, doesn’t hold up. So what is the reason?
What if the attacks are less about the report and more about Triggs herself?
Is her authority being undermined because she is too powerful and must be stopped?
The federal Cabinet has determinedly given very little power to women, and yet all of a sudden we are expected to believe that one woman – Peta Credlin – is the puppet master of the entire government’s success or failure.
The rhetoric directed at Triggs is the same. The idea that she could single handedly commission and author a report engineered to hurt the coalition in the polls is preposterous.
Triggs is, from all accounts a formidable and highly successful lawyer, but she does not have that kind of power.
Triggs did not write the convention on the rights of the child. Nor does she control any of the international human rights laws governing Australia’s treatment of any person.
As was pointed out several times yesterday, she was not solely responsible for deciding upon, designing or authoring the Forgotten Children report. A national inquiry of this size requires a huge number of operatives and decision makers, and Triggs herself said the decision to launch an inquiry requires consensus from all commissioners.
And yet Liberal senators, MPs, the attorney general and even the PM continue to imply she managed to orchestrate the whole thing on her own.
Bestowing this kind of illogical power on Triggs speaks to a compulsion to prove that a woman in power is dangerous. We have seen it time and time again.
Sexism was almost brazen in yesterday’s hearing.
At one point while Triggs was speaking, Liberal senator Barry O’Sullivan asked chairman McDonald if he would like to hear a “man’s voice”. Penny Wong was told to settle down and the AG even joked to Senator “They might say you’re being sexist.”
It is not implausible that some of the criticism towards Triggs is rooted in sexism, as it was and is with Gillard and Credlin.
But it is also possible that the attacks are a well-considered attempt to remove someone for speaking truth to power.
A government attempting to remove a commission president for pointing out that government’s breaches of human rights threatens the principles that a functioning democracy relies on.
If an independent legal commission on human rights cannot function without fear of retribution based on what it reports, where does that leave a democracy?
Triggs has been accused of authoring a “partisan” report that threatens the impartiality of the Human Rights Commission.
It’s frighteningly ironic because the only thing threatening the impartiality of the HRC is the government attempting to control it.
Whatever the exact reasons, however murky and ugly they may be, for the concerted campaign to undermine Gillian Triggs, it is a distraction from the most pertinent problem.
In 2015, Australia is denying children their basic human rights. A lawyer charged with the task of defending human rights has announced unequivocally that Australia is committing human rights abuses against children.
That should have been the beginning, middle and end of this story.
I stand with Gillian Triggs, but the idea that I would need to is absurd and frightening, because there should be nothing “partisan” about the physical, sexual and psychological abuse of children. Nothing.