Defending Gillian Triggs


Gillian TriggsInstitutional scrutiny — one levelled at the functions of government and its policies is the hallmark of any healthy democracy. Amending, abridging or removing it suggests signs of decay. Attacking its representatives suggests that a certain rot has set in.

The report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014 is discomforting, but not surprising. Australia's record on child detention is infamously poor, and the use of onshore and offshore systems of indefinite mandatory detention have exemplified the problem. Abuse has been institutionalised through bipartisan consensus.

The material used in the report, a point missed by various Australian parliamentarians, is obtained, in the main, from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. There were also interviews with 1129 children over 15 months.

The Report noted how, for instance, children on Nauru 'are suffering from extreme levels of physical, emotional, psychological and developmental stress'. It found that the transfer of children to Nauru for mandatory indefinite detention violated the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

There has been a conspicuous failure to consider the best interests of the child, and provide an environment free of physical, sexual and emotional violence. Up to 233 assaults were noted, with 33 incidents of reported sexual assault.

Instead of considering how compliance with the Refugee Convention, Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights conventions might be made, government ministers, backbenchers and various members of the press have attacked the AHRC head as politically biased.

This, notwithstanding the Commonwealth act under which the Commission functions, which grants it power to 'inquire into any act or practice that may be inconsistent with or contrary to any human right'.

The Attorney-General, George Brandis, showed how far he has eased off about considerations of free speech and discussion by suggesting that Triggs resign. After all, he argued, the problem of child detention was one associated with the previous government, and had been 'largely solved'.

Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton considered the findings 'dated or questionable'. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and certain coalition backbenchers, decided to exercise some executive muscle, calling the report a 'blatantly partisan political exercise' and a 'transparent stitch-up'. Indeed, it has been revealed that the Abbott Government sought the resignation of Triggs two weeks before its attack on the report.

Journalists such as Chris Kenny at The Australian and Piers Ackerman of The Daily Telegraph have led a venomous charge against the credentials of Triggs. For Kenny, Triggs had been 'silent when 2000 kids [were] detained', ignoring the obvious point that the process of investigation was still underway.

Akerman decided to personalise the assault, suggesting that Triggs was a 'darling of hypocritical Labor luvvies' even when she made it clear that the report covered 'many years reporting on the failure by both Labor and Liberal governments to comply with their international law obligations to refugees'.

The AHRC report on child detention was 'politically inspired', though Akerman offers no evidence as to how that could be so. (Presumably, a report that takes issue with illegal mandatory detention is, by definition, political.)

But what matters in his column attacking Triggs is not even what the report says, but what Triggs supposedly did regarding the treatment of one of her children, who was born in 1984 with Edwards syndrome. That she seemed coldly rational about her priorities struck Akerman as infuriating, not to mention disentitling, in her role as critic of the government's policy.

Akerman also rehashed an encounter that suggested trouble was brewing. When Triggs questioned then immigration minister Scott Morrison that detainees were being kept in what amounted to a prison complex, the minister retorted that Long Bay Jail could hardly be deemed the same as 'Phosphate Hill, Christmas Island'.

More broadly, these attacks suggest certain authoritarian dangers. Alleged factual errors are not asserted — the report, in that sense, is deemed irrelevant.

The sentiment expressed by Brandis and his colleagues is seemingly that a human rights organisation sanctioned by government legislation is only doing its job if it whitewashes government policies, functioning as an executive mouthpiece rather than its scrutineer.

In circumstances where rights and their abuse requires discussion and means of redress, stinging attacks on the AHRC and its president serve as sinister echoes of a vision Australians should be wary off.

A group of 50 academics has pointed out that 'Independent public office holders are an important part of modern democratic societies.' The Australian Bar Association and the Law Council of Australia have similarly argued that the personal attacks on Triggs amounted to an undermining of justice and the protection of human rights. It is a point the Abbott Government neglects to its peril.

Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Gillian Triggs, Human Rights Commission



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Existing comments

It is noteworthy also that all the commentary by politicians et al are largely ad hominem, "attack the messenger, not the message". This seems to be a feature of public discourse in this decade of political turmoil. Your commentary also contains a reflection of the distortions seemingly inherent in the knee-jerk outbursts of hard right politicians and journalists rather than the more moderate voices of reason such as Ms Triggs.

Brian Larsson | 18 February 2015  

..."ignoring the obvious point that the process of investigation was still underway." Patently false! The Coalition came into power in September 2013. Triggs launched the Inquiry on February 3 2014, some five months later. There was no inquiry during the whole term of the previous Labor government, when numbers of boat arrivals were escalating. An earlier inquiry was conducted during - surprise, surprise - the Howard government. The AHRC is a politically motivated body and Triggs, with her self-contradictory statements, verballing of Scott Morrison, and fantasy that she saw guards with guns on Christmas Island, epitomises its lack of integrity. Shut it down.

HH | 18 February 2015  

Attacking the messenger is the cheapest trick in the book. It saves you all the trouble of having to construct a logical argument, supported by appropriate data, to support the case you would like to make.

Brian Finlayson | 18 February 2015  

H.H. Perhaps you should deal with the substance of Triggs findings, harsh deterrence does not justify the slow spiritual destruction of young lives by any party. Righteous blustering wont give you the high moral ground this time.

V.J. | 18 February 2015  

A splendid piece, thanks Binoy. Abbott's response to the Triggs report was perhaps the most rabid he has ever made. And it came after his promise of reform. Australia is there, for him, just to ensure the fortunes of his party and his own. .

Joe Castley | 18 February 2015  

This week, we Australians are faced with the interesting juxtaposition of the condemned drug smugglers in Indonesia and refugee detainees in this country. In both cases those apprehended by the law knowingly and willingly undertook their actions in full knowledge of the consequences and are entirely responsible for their current predicaments. The Indonesian government is not the bad boy in the matter of the drug smugglers. The Australian government is not the bad boy in regard to the detainees. Yes, both policies are inhumane but the actions under which the recipients of these policies. now suffer were undertaken deliberately and irresponsibly by them in their self interests and to their advantage. In both systems the "victims" are self-generated. What a strange world proclaimed in the name of social justice and humanity wherein the perpetrators of actions contrary to the laws and systems of a particular country are victims while the governments who disallow such behaviour have become the transgressors. As far as the children in detention are concerned their parents and guardians are entirely to blame for their current circumstances since they have demonstrated their willingness to pay large amounts of money (an impossibility for a genuine refugee) to give themselves a perceived better life style even when in full knowledge of the risks to which they expose their children.

john frawley | 18 February 2015  

Whether or not Gillian Triggs was unfairly targeted does not diminish the facts of the timing of her report or the 15 month period for which she gained the basis for her report. The HR Commission should be objective, and in the report no doubt it was for the period. However M/s Triggs should also be non-political, which it obviously isn't the case.

Brian Goodall | 18 February 2015  

Abbott and co. are the ones playing politics with the lives of innocent children - sickening response. It's clear both sides of politics need to lift their game on this issue although that's not going to happen until ordinary Australians say ENOUGH!

Craig | 18 February 2015  

Once upon a time the Minister would resign for such failure . The politicians got rid of that practice and neutered the public service. This is more of the same.

Peter Horan | 18 February 2015  

Thank you Binoy. Is there really any doubt that asylum seekers, adults as well as children, coming by boat to Australia have been and are being treated abominably. This and other reports have confirmed that we are breaking promises made by successive Governments in international treaties.The Abbott-Morrison justification is that it has stopped the boats; that the ends justify the means (which I believe they probably do regret). Very many people in this country go along with that rationale and these nasty practices, "for the greater good". I believe that this is all intolerable and immoral. The added hypocrisy is that Abbott and Morrison (and the Greens) sank the Gillard attempt to get up a Malaysia (and Indonesia) solution which would have processed people in these countries before they needed to get onto boats; reason given was that Malaysia had not signed these very treaties. Ha Ha! And all to get votes and get into office. May our Lord have mercy on them.

Eugene | 18 February 2015  

Well done Binoy Kampmark Children in detention in Australia! But what about kids 'in detention' in their countries of origin or intermediacy? Abdullah (not his real name) arrived on Christmas Island by boat from Pakistan in July 2012 leaving behind his wife and six young children. As a 'Shi'a pagan', he had been tortured and then put on the Sunni death list. Originally trying to escape the death squads as a Hazara, he and his family had left their home country Afghanistan for Quetta in Pakistan, hoping to escape Sunni persecution there. That didn't work because it was from Quetta that he left to seek asylum and safety for himself and hopefully his wife and kids. Abdullah was granted a Permanent Protection Visa by the Labor Government on 17 May 2013. Attempts to obtain asylum for his family have not been successful thus far. Tragically now suffering bone cancer with only months to live, an application for Visitors' Visas for his wife and children was lodged. This to enable him to be with his loved ones before he dies. Despite the best efforts of the Federal Member for Reid, Craig Laundy,the application was refused this week. Abdullah will die alone.

Claude Rigney | 18 February 2015  

Thank you Binoy for your measured and thoughtful comment on an extremely concerning attack on the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission. Equally concerning are the comments of HH and JF. Happily, CR demonstrates compassion and an instinct to preservation of human rights on this issue.

HelenH | 18 February 2015  

The AHRC’s reports provides much useful if incomplete information about children in detention. It reveals, for example, that by March 2014 there were 56 unaccompanied children in detention, down from 575 at January 1, 2014. It’s astonishing that so many families were prepared to send their children on a dangerous sea voyage with one per cent mortality rates – and knowing that on arrival they would be incarcerated with adult, mostly male strangers for many months. And while the report also contains much agonising testimony about the detention-induced misery of these children it conspicuously fails to ask such questions as: 1)What family pressures were placed on them to seek asylum in Australia? 2) How do they feel about this? 3) Do they feel used by their families? The report might also have asked how much their families had to pay people smugglers to get them into Australia. Interestingly too – in very small type at the back the back of the report (pages 306-13) – can be found a detailed rebuttal of many of its findings by the Dept. of Immigration and Border Protection. It’s worth reading, citing factual inaccuracies and examples of “insufficient detail”, “no evidence has been advanced” regarding many of the report’s claims. Perhaps ES might like to run an article summarizing these criticisms in the interests of editorial balance.

Deniis | 19 February 2015  

We are with you, Gillian. Thanks, donna

Donna Dening | 19 February 2015  

Great points, Dennis. I found the Dept of Immigration's sober and clinical response to the draft report to be by far the strongest part of the whole document. Here's a illuminating example of the way the Commission handled that response in its final report. On p.310 the Dept. notes that the Commission's Draft report cited a 14% rate of new mothers in detention being diagnosed with mental illness. The Dept states "The Commission offers no information regarding the prevalence of mental illness in the Australian community by way of context." True. The Dept then proceeds to document studies showing that between one in six and one in five new mothers in the Australian community were diagnosed with mental illness. From this evidence, it would be reasonable to conclude that the rate of depression in new mothers in detention may be either equal to OR EVEN LOWER than the rate in new mothers in the wider community ! Now, what was the Commission’s response? In the Final Report,(p. 92) the commission is forced to acknowledge this wider context of new mother mental illness rates. However, it still distorts the picture, by 1) Stating that the rate of depression in new mothers in detention is "in line" with rates in the wider community, whereas in actual fact the Dept's cited studies show it might very possibly be LOWER (14% detention, 20% wider community) 2.) Closing off this section with an anecdote which in no way reflects in the empirical research supplied by the Dept and begrudgingly allowed into the Final Report but with no justification whatsoever comes to the opposite conclusion : namely, that via new mother depression, "Detention is breaking families." Try that sort of thing at school or uni and see where it gets you. And there’s loads more of this shoddy scholarship in the Report, as Jennifer Oriel demonstrates in today’s “Australian”.

HH | 19 February 2015  

Helen H. Could it be that the comments of HH, JF and Dennis are based on truth rather than emotional, misguided "compassion"?

Ed O'Farrelly | 19 February 2015  

In Griggs’ The Forgotten Children: ... 2014 “Australia's record on child detention is infamous ... Abuse has been institutionalised through bipartisan consensus”. But the Coalition was voted in September 2013 (15 mths ago). Labor’s in power for 13 years but where’s a report? As for “consensus”, Labor consistently ridicules the coalition but spent $ billons to fail. Why is the Coalition the “victim”? How do ‘wrongdoers’ become heroes? Parents escape from a war-zone. Why? They claim being traumatized by war, rape and torture. They fly (?) to Indonesia then pay more huge amounts of money (genuine refugees?) to travel in full knowledge of exposing children to additional trauma in leaky boats. How can they and their supporters make Australia responsible for trauma caused to their children by Australian detention? As “genuine refugees” they already have PTSD, like millions of refugees from Hitler’s Europe. What did those “New Australians” do in Australia? Many kissed the ground as soon as we stepped ashore. Then got on with survival in Australia. Like me many joined the Armed Services believing it a duty . Isn’t it amazing current “New Australians” blame Australia for their woes then apply for Compensation for already existing injuries? How many join the Armed Services of Australia? (80 is the latest figure). How many want to fight with IS? (3-400). Then some parade Hicks as a hero! Somethings wrong!

Karl | 20 February 2015  

John Frawley, why is it impossible for a refugee to have money or even a lot of money. Are wealthy people immune from persecution.. That is a novel idea..I wonder where that came from?

Bernie Introna | 20 February 2015  

This discussion seems to have lost its way. Blame is not the point. The question is how to prevent the immigration detention of children ever happening again. "By stopping the boats" may seem an OK answer, but how much do most of us know about how that's been done? There's been some excellent investigative reporting in "The Saturday Paper" recently--things the authorities would rather we didn't know about how screening at sea works (or rather, doesn't), for example. Professor Triggs was doing serious research to collect evidence on a sensitive, emotive matter. Of course it's open to review--research always is. But let's show a bit more humility before her findings, and try to work out their implications for what we, as citizens, should do, and what we would have our government do in our name.

Helen Dunstan | 20 February 2015  

I think it is time to record a motion of no confidence in the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, and in the Abbott government. They are beyond repair.

Eveline Goy | 24 February 2015  

In response to John Frawley, how the concept of Christianity in Australia has been warped to cloak the abhorrence of racism in it. As a practising Catholic, how can you blame the parents of children in detention, why don't you look at the root causes why they are in such dire poverty and hardship in the first instance? So often we forget the effects and consequences of British colonisation to the continuing detriment of dark people and the continuing benefit of white people like yourself. The white Australian mastermind behind the Bali smuggling is living the life of Riley in Sydney - yet he is not mentioned by you to be brought to account in Australia as the nonwhite Bali smugglers. Why is Sharpelle Corby, a white Australian, free today yet the full force of Australian government to help these non white Bali smugglers come so late? Why is Gillian Triggs asked to resign - because she is standing up for the rights of children, dark skinned children. Why does no white Australian want to bring home rights for dark skinned citizens in Australia? It is hard for the strong to be just to the weak.

Jackie | 03 March 2015  

If government members had bothered to read Triggs' report, they'd realise her wisdom in waiting until now to allow a comparison of the two governments policies - and it actually shows the Liberal Govt in a more positive light with a massive reduction in the numbers of kids in detention (although for longer time periods) than Labor. Would previous Liberal PM's have had the intelligence to see this?

AURELIUS | 07 March 2015  

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