During the past couple of years, a relative newcomer has appeared more and more frequently in the Australian media landscape – Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).
Professor Triggs was appointed to this role in 2012, bringing with her an impressive legal and academic résumé. You can read more about her background here – https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about/commissioners/president-professor-gillian-triggs .
The AHRC was established in 1986 by an act of the Federal Parliament, and is an independent statutory organisation which reports to the Parliament through the Attorney-General.
The AHRC website ( https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about-commission-0 ) states that the Commission seeks to lead “the promotion and protection of human rights in Australia by:
– making human rights values part of everyday life and language;
– empowering all people to understand and exercise their human rights;
– working with individuals, community, business and government to inspire action; and
keeping government accountable to national and international human rights standards.”
This is done by:
– “listening, learning, communicating and educating;
– being open, expert, committed and impartial;
– fostering a collaborative, diverse, flexible, respectful and innovative workplace.”
It’s statutory responsibilities include:
– “education and public awareness
– discrimination and human rights complaints
– human rights compliance
– policy and legislative development.”
The Commission is lead by the President and a number of commissioners –
– the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
– the Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner (Susan Ryan)
– the Children’s Commissioner (Megan Mitchell)
– the Human Rights Commissioner (Tim Wilson)
– the Race Discrimination Commissioner (Tim Soutphommasane)
– the Sex Discrimination Commissioner (Elizabeth Broderick)
(I must confess, to my shame, that until now, I had not understood that this is how the Australian Federal system of commissioners for various rights actually operated – see https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about/president-commissioners ).
Given the degeneration of successive Australian government attitudes over the past decade to those people who seek asylum and refuge in Australia having arrived here by boat, it is hardly surprising that a body such as the AHRC should be taking an increasingly active interest in the welfare and treatment of those asylum seekers and refugees. Failure to take such an interest would be a dereliction of duty and a breach of it’s legislative duty.
Having said that, anyone who questions or challenges current Government and Opposition policies on asylum seekers and refugees who arrived by boat puts themselves at significant risk of being criticised, critiqued, ridiculed and maligned.
It takes a person of strong principles and well-grounded conviction to run such a risk, and having spoken out, withstand the flow of invective and disparagement that follows.
Gillian Triggs is one such person.
When interviewed (often by hostile interviewers) she remains calm, composed and self-assured as she presents well-researched and well-formulated propositions. I have never heard her ruffled or confused. She is steadfast in her defence of human rights, bravely defiant in the face of withering and entirely unjustified dismissals of the AHRC’s work.
She is an impressive leader of her organisation as she asserts it’s independence of severely misguided governments that are almost certainly in breach of their national and international obligations towards asylum seekers and refugees, squirming as they articulate their weasel words of distortion and opacity.
And now the frenzy of opposition to the AHRC and Gillian Triggs is mounting with the publication of it’s report The forgotten children: national inquiry into children in immigration detention (2014) –
I exhort you to to take the time to read Professor Triggs’ Foreword to the Report at https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/forgotten-children-national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014 .
In the face of a sudden, ferocious and intense campaign to demonise and traduce the Commission, the President and the Report, this provides context to how, when and why the Report came to be initiated when it did.
(The timing of it’s release in Parliament last night, is, of course, a totally separate matter of conjecture…)
If you don’t have time to read the whole Foreword, at least read this part (bear in mind that it was written in 2014, so references to “last year” refer to 2013) –
“Asylum seeker policy in context
Australia’s policy of prolonged and indefinite detention of asylum seeker children should be understood in context. Last year saw tumultuous global and regional conflict and persecution, leading to an unprecedented flow of boat arrivals in Australia. The Australian community has been shocked by the tragic deaths of over a thousand asylum seekers taking the perilous voyage by sea, including at least 15 children between 2008 and 2013.
In an attempt to stop illegal people smuggling and drowning at sea, the Labor Government reintroduced offshore transfers to Nauru and Manus Island. As from 13 August 2012, that Government froze the assessment of claims to refugee status under the ‘no advantage’ principle, leaving about 31,000 asylum seeker families and children in a legal black hole in which their rights and dignity have been denied, in some cases for years. The current Government has maintained this policy.
The Commission acknowledges that the surge in asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat in 2013 placed considerable pressures on the Department of Immigration and its resources, especially on Christmas Island. The Government’s policy, ’Operation Sovereign Borders’, under which Australian authorities use force to intercept and turn back boats, has prevented asylum seekers from reaching our shores. The consequence is that it has become possible to focus on those 5,514 asylum seekers who are currently detained in Australia and on Nauru and Manus Island (as of 30 September 2014).
Commission decision to conduct an Inquiry
By July 2013, the number of children detained reached 1,992.
As the federal election was imminent, I decided to await the outcome of the election, and any government changes in asylum seeker policy, before considering launching an Inquiry. By February this year, it became apparent that there had been a slowing down of the release of children. Over the first six months of the new Coalition Government the numbers of children in detention remained relatively constant. Not only were over 1000 children held in detention by February 2014, but also they were being held for longer periods than in the past, with no pathway to resettlement.
In these circumstances, I decided to exercise the Commission’s powers under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth) to hold a National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.”
My admiration for Gillian Triggs, which is already extremely high, will only increase as she now defends herself, the Report and the Commission’s work.
It is lamentable that so few public officials and politicians display this kind of leadership in public life today.
And those people who feel the need to profess and express their own leadership qualities for the edification of the rest of us, are sadly the ones in whom they are all-too-obviously lacking.
And we are not fooled.