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Triggs champions common compassion

  • 13 June 2018


I was recently struck by a resonant phrase attributed to a Jewish Australian in the 1930s. He was trying to bring to Australia a Jewish family who were in grave danger in Austria.

Asked by an immigration official what made him want to bring the family of his daughter's pen friend, none of whom he had ever met, he replied, 'Common compassion.' The family could not come, and most were later killed. His phrase lives on.

The story was told by Gillian Triggs in a talk on human rights given to the Xavier Social Justice Network in Melbourne. When president of the Human Rights Commission, she reported on the human rights abuses on Manus Island and Nauru. The jackals of the ruling party and its media supporters then hunted in packs to tear her down.

Common compassion can have many meanings, pertinent to public life as well as to personal virtue. It can name a compassion that is not special, is not based in strong emotion, but in respect as the bottom line in all human relationships. In the same way, we might speak of common decency.

It can also designate a compassion that pervades all human relationships, one that in this case links the applicant, the beneficiary family and the immigration official. It recalls to the official the humanity he shares with the threatened family.

Common compassion might also refer more broadly to a principle that grounds the commons and is the basis of public order and the relationship between rulers and people. It recognises the worth of each person and the respect that is owed to them by governments, prohibiting them from treating persons as things. In particular it is expressed in the Magna Carta, a document foundational for English and so for Australian polity. Par 39 is central:

'No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.'


"Common compassion, the respect for each individual person that finds expression in respect for the law and the separation of powers, is injured with each failure to show respect."


In the context of the conflict between King John and the barons, these words limit the king's power over individuals by interposing