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Issue #1675      March 4, 2015


Political agendas and the treatment of Gillian Triggs

The ongoing furore about the Abbott government’s “loss of confidence” in Human Rights Commission (HRC) President Gillian Triggs carries political warnings for the Australian people. Accusations of bias and serious lapses in judgement on Triggs’ part fail to mask the intention of the federal government to shut down what remains of independent scrutiny and to appoint people much more agreeable to their reactionary program.

Professor Triggs took up her appointment in 2012 after a distinguished legal career. In July 2013 there were 1,992 children in mandatory asylum seeker detention, an appalling statistic that prompted the investigation and report entitled The Forgotten Children – National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. The HRC President delayed the inquiry while the 2013 federal election was imminent to avoid accusations of politicising the issue and to see results of any change of policy flowing from a change of government. This act of discretion is now being sold to the Australian public by PM Tony Abbott and his ministerial gang as a “political stitch up”.

In slippery statements on the issue, Coalition ministers avoid some stubborn facts. The numbers of asylum seekers in detention in Australia and on Nauru and Manus Islands did not fall off a cliff when the Abbott government took office. On September 30, 2014, a year after its election, there were 5,514 people in immigration detention. There were well over 1,000 children in detention in February 2014 and “they were being held for longer periods than in the past, with no pathway to resettlement,” as stated in the report.

The report of the suffering of asylum seeker children held in woefully inadequate circumstances reviewed the failures of both Labor and the Coalition but it was Abbott, Attorney General George Brandis and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton who launched a campaign inside and outside parliament to trash the reputation of Triggs. They were joined in the media by The Australian newspaper, in particular, in an edifying display of real bias and attempted public humiliation. The position regarding the Commissioner has been elevated to the level of editorial policy. Triggs had to go.

Unfortunately for the politicians seeking to shoot the messenger, the government let it be known via the secretary of the Attorney General’s Department that Triggs would be offered a “suitable” legal post by way of compensation. She described it as a “disgraceful proposition” that would destroy the reputation for independence of the HRC. Other critics have called it an “inducement” or a bribe. The initial denials of the offer and later unconvincing attempts to explain events away have put renewed pressure on the government and the troubled prime ministership of Tony Abbott. The ALP and the Greens have both referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police.

Readers of the Guardian needn’t get carried away with the claims of institutions like the HRC to Solomon-like impartiality or, more broadly, the grandeur of bourgeois democracy and its system of “checks and balances”. Governments have always sought to stack the boards of institutions with its supporters and to duck and weave around the occasional rebuke coming from them. If the criticism strays too close to home, governments will question the methodology or the political “balance” of the inquisitors. But in the case of the current President of the Human Rights Commissioner, who appears to have overseen an inquiry with integrity, the Abbott government has swapped from politically-motivated defensiveness to outright attack.

A new type of commitment to shut down criticism is on display. Nothing is to be allowed to seriously question the Coalitions “good news” story – the claim to have “stopped the boats”. Asylum seekers must continue to suffer in silence as “non-persons”. The real attitude of the Abbott government to institutions like the Human Rights Commission was evident with its appointment of Tim Wilson, the former director of the reactionary Institute of Public Affairs as Human Rights Commissioner in 2013, is an reflection of the level of cynicism confronting the Australian people today.

Next article – Hugo Chávez lives on! – Commemorating the second anniversary of his death

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