Government ‘Ideologically Opposed to Human Rights’ Says Departing Triggs
26 July 2017 at 3:21 pm
The controversial outgoing president of the Australian Human Rights Commission Professor Gillian Triggs has described the Australian government as “ideologically opposed to human rights” on her final day in the top job.
In her final media interview on ABC Radio National, Triggs said: “I think human rights in this country have regressed.”
Her last day also coincided with media reports about a possible agreement between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Australian government about resettlement options for those living on Nauru and Manus Island.
Triggs told the ABC she was extremely disappointed about the regressive state of human rights under her five-year watch.
“To be honest I have to say… we a regressing on almost every front whether it is women, Indigenous, homeless and of course asylum seekers and refugees,” Triggs said.
“I think it is partly because we have a government that is ideologically opposed to human rights and I think it is exacerbated by the distance of most Australians to where these problems are actually the most visible.
“I have just come back from Yongah Hill for example and I suspect most Australians have no idea where Yongah Hill is or couldn’t place it on the map. It is about two hours drive out of Perth and there are hundreds of men held there [in detention] in some cases for five to seven years. It is out of sight out of mind”
Triggs said the biggest concern was that unlike any other comparable country, Australia had no Bill of Rights against which government policy can be benchmarked.
“We do not have a Bill of Rights. So anything that say is done in Canada or North America or Britain or any government measure or legislative measure, [it] must comply with fundamental human rights. We don’t have that in Australia,” she said.
“The point has to be made that when Mr Abbott campaigned for government one of those campaign platforms was the elimination of the Human Rights Commission. In that sense it was part of the platform and it has been maintained pretty well every since,” she said.
“I see people across Australia, they stop me in the supermarkets and on the trains and they all talk about fairness and justice from whatever perspective of politics they come. I think Australians do believe in that but I think they are very unnerved by leadership that constantly talks about the fear of terrorism and sadly in some cases, implicitly and explicitly, they link this with asylum seeker issues.
“So I think we have been lulled into a sense that anything the government wants to do in centralising power and in giving ministers unprecedented discretion without the supervision of the court is something the public has accepted.”
Triggs controversially locked horns with the federal government when she commissioned a review of children in detention and was accused of politicising the commission. She faced a grilling from the government about the report during her appearance before a Senate Estimates hearing in Canberra along with calls for her resignation.
“I have absolutely no interest in political partisanship. The reality, and I know this to be true, is that while the Labor government was undeniably detaining children, it was doing so for relatively short periods of time and I was having reasonably regular discussions with the then minister Mr Burke in a context that I understood the children were slowly being released.
“When the election was called obviously I am not going to call an inquiry in the middle of an election. 1100 children with their families were being detained. Four months later the figure was almost identical.
“We gave the new government the opportunity to treat these children with humanity and get them out of detention. Obviously they were going to be held for a few weeks. They were arriving in appalling states in Christmas Island. We accepted that they would be held for a little while but we realised that the new government was not going to release these children and they were being held for unprecedented periods of time. And that is then we made the decision to hold the inquiry.”
She agreed that the move created a perception that she was acting in a political way.
“I totally reject that but I do accept that that was the perception created not only by the government but by a major newspaper in Australia.”
She said the damage to the commission’s reputation was a matter of great concern to her.
“I knew that the government was now moving not to deal with the evidence we had produced but to decide to attack me personally and the commission [and that] was very dangerous.
“But we also know that the Australian government platform was that it was determined to see the commission abolished and we saw this in the context of what really was the intent of the government.
“The last thing I want to do is to have a negative impact on the reputation of the commission but I think it is fair to say that the Australian people are now much more aware of the function and purposes of the Human Rights Commission and there is huge community support for the work that we do.”
When asked if she had any regrets the outgoing president said: “No regrets. I believe we have done a terrific job. We have stuck to the facts, we know the facts are right and we are very proud of that. I very much hope that in the future the commission can continue to be fearless in standing up for the rights of Australians.”
As Triggs prepared to leave the commission’s top job, aid agency Save the Children called on the Australian government to ensure families separated by its offshore detention policies are reunited in Australia, if that was their wish.
The organisation’s director of policy and public affairs Mat Tinkler said recent media reports of a tacit agreement between the government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were concerning, as they highlight the government’s apparent current intention to keep families separated.
“Whether or not an agreement was struck between the Australian government and the UNHCR, we are deeply concerned that the US resettlement deal may result in individuals on Nauru and Manus Island being permanently separated from close family members in Australia,” he said.
“During our time working with asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru, we saw the harmful psychological impact that prolonged family separation has on children.
He said the hopes of the people living in Nauru and Manus mirrored those of Australians.
“All they seek is to be with their families, have a safe home, allow their children to attend school, and have the chance to secure a decent job. Nothing could be more damaging to these dreams than the prospect of having your family torn apart by a deliberately cruel policy,” Tinkler said.
He said the government’s claim that allowing some refugees to settle in Australia would encourage people smugglers was “completely unfounded”.
“This is simply an unnecessarily cruel addition to the already harsh policies of offshore mandatory detention and boat turn-backs.”
Gillian Triggs has been replaced by Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM as the next president of the Human Rights Commission.
Croucher has been with the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for more than 10 years, almost eight of those as president. She will begin her seven-year term on July 30, 2017.