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Defending Gillian Triggs

  • 18 February 2015

Institutional 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