Courage under fire: Gillian Triggs' fight for people's rights

Professor Gillian Triggs is standing tall after a very public and personal attack over the past year

As an international lawyer, academic and now president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs has long been accustomed to fighting for people’s rights. Little did she imagine she would need to defend her own integrity.

This article is from the May 2016 issue of INTHEBLACK.

It was a surprisingly personal and scathing attack by the then prime minister that brought Professor Gillian Triggs to public attention last year. 

As president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Triggs oversaw a damning inquiry into Australia’s practice of holding refugee children in detention while their application for asylum is assessed. The report, which consulted the medical profession and lawyers among others, concluded that detention was dangerous for children.

Prime minister at the time Tony Abbott and attorney-general George Brandis questioned the credibility of not just the Commission but of Triggs herself. They said she was politically biased, had made a “catastrophic error of judgement” and that they had lost confidence in her. They wanted her to resign. 

They didn’t, however, count on the resilience of the London-born international lawyer with decades of service under her belt. Triggs stared down her attackers and has emerged from the battle with a renewed vigour to tackle human rights issues across Australia. Significantly, she says, she has the respect of new prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

In a interview with former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley for INTHEBLACK and Nine Network Australia’s In Conversation with Alex Malley, Triggs recalls sailing through the Suez Canal as a child when emigrating with her family to Australia: an experience that first triggered her interest in global affairs and human rights. A stint at the Dallas Police Department in the 1960s only strengthened her resolve.

In the interview, Triggs decries the lack of moral leadership shown by Australia’s politicians over the past 15 years. She says the 9/11 terror attacks and similar global events have enabled politicians to play on people’s fears and enact legislation that blatantly encroaches on human rights.

“No human rights commission or president could have turned their back on that issue.”

She believes the executive arm of the government is increasingly exercising disproportionate control over parliament and the courts, and that Australians will wake up one day and realise how much the government is interfering with their fundamental rights.

Alex Malley: You grew up in North London; what was childhood like for you?

Professor Gillian Triggs: I went to my convent every day and we led a very London kind of a life. It was a wonderful childhood; I was enormously fortunate to live in such a lovely city but in a time that was very difficult – it was immediately post-war, bombed-out sites, poverty, refugees. My mother was a feminist, there’s no doubt about that. She was the business brains. She felt – both my parents did, but she particularly – very strong about the opportunity for young girls. My parents were very, very strong on wanting us to go to university. 

Malley: I understand that you found the convent a little bit constraining, is that right?

Triggs: The nuns were not soft sentimental creatures, they were pretty tough ladies. Interesting for the times, because of course they were educated. They had degrees and they were teaching. I felt very strongly that there was a world outside. I had the opportunity, as everybody did in England at that time, to do the Eleven Plus exam – I passed and was able to leave the convent and move to a wonderful grammar school.

Malley: I read that one of your passions is ballet. 

Triggs: Yes, I started at age four – I think my mother was desperate to get me to do something. Ballet was everything to me; I loved the music. For me, it was a world outside school, outside the family. It was my private world in a way. I love the beauty of ballet, the discipline and the colleagueship of ballet. I did the Royal Academy of dance exams up to a fairly senior level and really would have loved a career in ballet – but the honest truth, I’m afraid Alex, is I wasn’t very good.

The moment that shaped her future

Malley: Your family emigrated to Australia when you were 12, and on that journey you travelled through the Suez Canal. What did you see and how did that impact your thinking?

Triggs: It was a very interesting year 1958. It was just two years after the disastrous British and French invasion of the Suez Canal. This was an important global event at the time, although we rarely talk about it today. Ten, 11 years after the end of the Second World War and coming through the Suez Canal in the heat, everything was bristling with guns. We made a side trip to Cairo and down to see the Sphinx in Egypt, to see the poverty, to see violence and guns. Then we came through the Red Sea to Yemen, where we still have very significant conflict and death. 

So that was an extraordinary world for me as a little ballet dancer from a convent in London, to realise there was this world outside, which was so different from my own, and I became really very interested in global affairs and politics.

The Dallas Police Department

Malley: The focus you picked up on the ship about globalisation took you into international law and you received a scholarship to go to the US. You ended up working at the Dallas Police Department …

Triggs: I took a summer program with the chief of police … the 1964 civil rights legislation, which was so important to transforming America, had a series of clauses in it dealing with discrimination and employment. He asked me to give him legal advice on that. I was a confident young lawyer and I gave him the advice, not realising of course that this conflicted with everything the District Attorney’s Office in Dallas had advised him. The chief offered me a two-year job to give him the kind of advice he wanted. I loved it. He was ultimately forced to resign by the same establishment in Dallas, and I came back to Australia.

The Human Rights Commission

Attorney-general George Brandis looks on as Gillian Triggs is quizzed at a Senate Estimates hearing in February 2016

Attorney-general George Brandis looks on as Gillian Triggs is quizzed at a Senate Estimates hearing in February 2016

Malley: Most recently, what’s brought you into public conversation is your role as president of the Human Rights Commission. What more have you learnt about politics and politicians since taking up the role?

Triggs: The critical lesson that I’ve learnt over the last three years is the importance and power of leadership. Our politicians set the tone and the substance of the way we develop as a country, and they support the values that most Australians are willing to accept. I don’t think until I had taken this job that I had quite seen how powerful that political role is, and that is something I respect but I’m also concerned about. 

Much of our political leadership, particularly over the last 15 years, has … not given full respect to human rights. [That] has undermined some of the main principles of freedom and liberty that Australia was based upon. Where that leadership starts to falter, then we have a real challenge to our democracy and to our Australian version of liberty and freedom.

“Where that leadership starts to falter, then we have a real challenge to our democracy and to our Australian version of liberty and freedom.”

Malley: Your report, The Forgotten Children, created enormous controversy in politics in Australia and some very harsh criticism was thrown at you. What’s your position with that in terms of your public office and the comments you made? 

Triggs: It’s my job to call Australia to account – government and the private sector – for compliance with international law. And the one issue on the top of the political agenda for many years is how we treat our asylum seekers and refugees, particularly offshore processing and, most particularly, holding thousands and then hundreds now of children in detention.

No human rights commission or president could have turned their back on that issue, but I knew that it was going to be difficult, partly because across the political spectrum, Australians supported a harsh policy with relation to asylum seekers. You knew that you weren’t going to have 50 per cent of the population supporting what we did. I cannot conduct my job by reference to what the public or politicians think is right. I have to do what I do by reference to the law, to the obligations Australia has to human rights as they are implemented in Australia. 

So we embarked on the enquiry. We did so without any political bias whatsoever and we amassed our evidence. We brought in the medical profession, lawyers, others with an interest in the area and we produced a very comprehensive, credible and objective report. 

It created a furore, and unfortunately political leaders at that time decided to attack me personally, rather than to take on the content of the report. Now, subsequent to our report, we’ve had the Moss Review, we’ve had a Senate Inquiry and we’ve recently even had the Doogan Review in relation to Save the Children staff and the allegations there. 

So, we have had a consistent set of evidence that holding children in detention is damaging; it’s a dangerous environment. It’s very clear as a matter of law that to hold asylum seekers and refugees for years without assessing their claim to refugee status, and without access meaningfully to our courts, is a very serious breach of human rights. In a sense, we’ve been vindicated … but it’s unique to have attacked the Commission and me personally in the way that it happened.

Malley: Personally, how did you deal with it?

Triggs: It was very difficult, because I’ve been relatively in the shadows: I’ve been a commercial lawyer, an international lawyer, a dean of a faculty. So it was an extraordinary phenomenon to reach my age and stage in my profession, having been admitted as a barrister and a solicitor for nearly 50 years, to have a prime minister and ministers say they did not have confidence in Gillian Triggs.

That language reverberated through my head, sitting in Senate Estimates and in the attacks in certain segments of the media. Resilience came from knowing that we’d done our homework. We knew we were right on the facts. I was positive we were right on the law. 

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The public response was phenomenal. We had literally thousands of emails and flowers arriving daily. That all made a big difference and helped with the Commission staff, because many of our staff are quite young and I think they were probably very shocked at the virulence of the attack.

The rise and rise of executive government

Malley: You’ve commented that there’s been an increase in executive government decision-making. Why is that and what can we do about it?

Triggs: Australians barely understand that they’ve got a Constitution and they certainly don’t understand that we do not have a Bill of Rights or a Charter of Rights, being the only common law country in the world without one. That has allowed government, particularly over the last 15 or 20 years, to slowly increase the power of the executive at the expense of the court and the judiciary with a compliant parliament. 

We’ve seen in the last few years in particular a failure of opposition of respective parties … which has meant parliament has passed laws that significantly impinge on our fundamental rights. Counterterrorism laws are a very good example of that. They are an overreach by the executive that has been accepted by parliament because of the fear created in relation to terrorism and huge budgets voted to support border control and security and intelligence operations. 

Of course, all human rights must be balanced with national security, with public safety. Most Australians don’t see it until one day they find that their metadata has revealed that they’re gay or that they’ve breached the law in some way or they’ve got connections that they would not want in the public arena. And we will find people saying, “Why are you collecting this data? What are you doing with it?”. 

The Australian public has said, “Of course we don’t mind if my metadata is collected. I’m not a criminal. I’m not going to do anything illegal and if what that does is keep Australia safe, then I’m prepared to allow it to happen.” Now at the Human Rights Commission, we accept that argument, but we do say critically that if this material is to be collected, it must be supervised by a judge or by an appropriate tribunal and that is the sticking point with the government.

The Forgotten Children

In November 2014, the Australian Human Rights Commission issued a report The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.

The report says it provides compelling first-hand evidence of the negative impact that prolonged immigration detention is having on children’s mental and physical health. The evidence given by the children and their families is fully supported by psychiatrists, paediatricians and academic research. The evidence shows that immigration detention is a dangerous place for children.

The government, including then prime minister Tony Abbott, labelled the report politically biased. “It’s absolutely crystal clear this inquiry by the president of the Human Rights Commission is a political stitch-up,” Abbott told parliament. “All I know madam speaker is that this government has lost confidence in the president of the Human Rights Commission.”

Attorney-general George Brandis said Gillian Triggs had committed a “catastrophic error of judgement” and asked her to resign.

“My answer was that I have a five-year statutory position, which is designed for the president of the Human Rights Commission specifically to avoid political interference in the exercise of my tasks under the Human Rights Commission Act,” Triggs later told a Senate Inquiry.

The United Nations wrote to the Australian Government, urging it to stop its verbal attacks on Triggs.

“The critical lesson that I’ve learnt over the last three years is the importance and power of leadership.”

This article is from the May 2016 issue of INTHEBLACK.

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