I was buying the family fish and chips when attorney general Philip Ruddock called to appoint me as human rights commissioner and disability discrimination commissioner in December 2005. One of the things he said to me, after informing me and congratulating me, was that I must do the job “without fear or favour”.
As human rights commissioner I reported on three inspections of immigration detention centres, two under the Howard government. I conducted the Same Sex: Same Entitlements inquiry, and the Howard government did not implement my recommendations. I supported Australia’s participation in the drafting of a Disability Convention, which was initially opposed by the Howard government.
I disagreed many times on policy issues with Howard ministers and staffers. Our discussions were sometimes “free and frank”, usually civil and never personal. My views were regularly questioned, my integrity was not.
When the Rudd government was elected and Robert McClelland became attorney general he said to commissioners: Sometimes you’ll give us a kicking. Sometimes you’ll support us. That’s your job. He took the Ruddock approach, sometimes questioning our recommendations, but never our integrity, as did attorneys-general Nicola Roxon and Mark Dreyfus.
Things changed in September 2013. My first sign was when a George Brandis staffer berated me for my criticism of Myer. I had called out Myer CEO Bernie Brookes for his assessment of the National Disability Insurance Scheme levy as being “money that could have gone through our cash registers”. The disability sector and others vehemently criticised his remark. When he made what I regarded as a “Clayton’s apology” the next day I joined the criticism, and recommended that he rectify his error by committing Myer to hire more employees with disabilities and commit to a 10 % target – a call to employers I made numerous times. The Brandis staffer questioned my judgement rather than my policy approach.
The trend continued with Tim Wilson’s appointment as human rights commissioner without a selection process, and fresh from the Institute of Public Affairs, whose policy was to abolish the Commission. Until that point, both sides of politics, as well as the Commission, understood that the position of human rights commissioner was redundant. From the time I moved from that role in 2009, the president, Catherine Branson, and then Gillian Triggs, carried the role.
The ill-fated Labor bill proposed in 2013 to consolidate Australia’s human rights legislation abolished the position altogether. This part of the bill was not opposed by Brandis in opposition. However it never came to the parliament.
Wilson’s appointment meant that the resources of the Commission were so stretched that when my term as disability discrimination commissioner ended last July the position was not filled. Susan Ryan got the job, as well as her full-time job as age discrimination commissioner. She had no lived experience of disability, although she is doing the best job she can.
The decision to conduct the children in detention inquiry was made when I was still at the Commission in 2013. All commissioners made it. Commissioners before me had inquired into the issue, I reported on three inspections of the centres, Catherine Branson inquired as well. The Commission has been concerned since the late 1990s that Australia has not been complying with its commitments under the Refugee Convention.
While the number of children in detention is less now than under Labor, those there have been there for much longer. Also, information about people in detention was significantly harder to obtain from the immigration department after the Coalition took power. In conducting the inquiry, the Commission was just doing its job “without fear or favour”.
The Forgotten Children report was received by the attorney general last October. The message to undermine Triggs clearly went out this January. It has happened ever since, climaxing when the government initiated discussions about her resignation, and talked of other employment.
Triggs was hammered in The Australian, although supported in most other media outlets. It isn’t the first time The Australian has attacked the Human Rights Commission – let’s not forget the time they put Tom Calma’s Canberra house on their front page, questioning what he as an Aboriginal man (who happened to be an outstanding bureaucrat) would know about Aboriginal welfare in the Northern Territory. They ignored the fact that this was where he came from. There are other examples too.
Part of our democratic system, and the rule of law, provides that a key duty of any attorney general is to defend judges and statutory officers doing their jobs, because they are not in a position to easily defend themselves. Far from defending, Brandis has attacked. It is he who has made the serious error of judgement. He has “shot the messenger”.. Triggs has advocated human rights compliance by Australia – she has done her job.
The “play the person, not the ball” approach was followed when Senator Ian Macdonald, chairing the Senate committee considering the report, admitted on Tuesday that he hadn’t read it because –
he said – it was partisan. How “chicken and egg” is this – if he hasn’t read it, how does he know it is partisan?
But you know, I agree with Malcolm Turnbull. This is not the main debate. We should be debating why children are still in detention, as Gillian Triggs has sought to do.
(This article was originally published in The Guardian.)
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