What we can all learn from Gillian Triggs’s grace under fire   - Women's Agenda

What we can all learn from Gillian Triggs’s grace under fire  

Gillian Triggs, President of the Human Rights Commission

In 2012 Gillian Triggs retired from her position as the Dean of Sydney University Law School to take up a new job as President of the Human Rights Commission. It seemed a fitting progression for an eminently qualified public international lawyer.      

I wonder if, back then, Triggs had any inkling of the fight that was ahead. Would she have guessed that four years into the five-year term she would have stared down two prime ministers, two immigration ministers and the attorney-general in a series of public rows?

Whether she anticipated it or not, it’s the reality she has faced. And so it was again yesterday.

On ABC Radio the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull admonished the HRC for bringing a controversial legal claim into the Federal Court which was then dismissed.

“What the judge was saying to the Human Rights Commission is, ‘you’ve been wasting the court’s time. You’ve been wasting government money’,” Turnbull said.

It wasn’t true and Triggs pulled no punches in saying so.

“The Prime Minister was deeply misleading in suggesting that we had brought the case. We never bring cases and we are purely passive in that sense. We don’t prosecute, we don’t pursue, we don’t instigate proceedings,” Triggs told Fairfax Media.

She fronted up to ABC’s 730 last night to defend and explain the commission’s role once again.


When asked by Leigh Sales why the commission hadn’t thrown out the QUT case sooner, she was resolute.

“The commission is bound to accept any complaint that is in writing that alleges a breach of the discrimination law.  So the first obligation is to accept the complaint and then to investigate it and conciliate it.” 

She went on to explain that the commission deals with around 20,000 matters each year and on average they conciliate about 76 per cent of those within three or four months. 

The cases that command media attention are the distinct minority which inevitably warps the public perception of the HRC’s role and dealings.   

Throughout the interview Triggs was measured and methodical: it was impossible to watch without admiring her tenacity and grace under fire. It’s a lesson in resilience and leadership.

Which is not the same as saying Triggs has never mis-stepped. She has. Last month in the Senate she accused a journalist of falsifying her comments but a recording from the interview proved she was mistaken.  

But missteps are part of life. Show me a leader who has never fumbled? How many of us would emerge from scrutiny of our every word and action without mistakes being revealed?  

Triggs’ term as the Human Rights Commissioner has coincided with an unprecedented politicisation of human rights. This is due in part to Australia’s highly contentious treatment of asylum seekers, but also the possibility of amending the Racial Discrimination Act, which is very much a live concern.   

It has meant, Triggs’ role has been well and truly in the firing line. She has faced a sustained campaign of public criticism. Her integrity and professionalism has been called into question. She was asked to resign. She has been accused of lying, playing politics and even had her personal life torn apart.   

And at every turn, she has continued to step up and fulfil her role. She has not backed down or packed it in. Miraculously she has not succumb to any temptation to run away or fall apart. She has stepped up day after day. One foot in front of the other. And there’s a powerful lesson for all of us in that.    

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