The Illuminations of Gillian Triggs
In her 1967 essay, Truth and Politics, American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote, “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues”.
Some 50 years later, and while still very few of us would consider truthfulness a political virtue, more and more of us are suffering the consequences of the fallout from the increasing gulf between the two. Arguably, no prominent Australian figure understands the implications of this fallout more clearly than Professor Gillian Triggs, whose story reveals the extent to which truth, justice and respect for the rule of law was, and continues to be, forsaken by the ruling class when it becomes an impediment to power.
In her delivery of the Dame Roma Mitchell Oration in July this year at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, Triggs spoke candidly about her role as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission and the very public spat with the Coalition government, which ensued following an inquiry into children in detention and the subsequent release of The Forgotten Children report in 2015.
The facts showed that children were being held in detention unprocessed for longer periods of time and that there were detrimental impacts on their health. It was an entirely apolitical exercise from the Commission’s perspective, with the same issue being reported on while Labor held power. The decision to escalate to an inquiry was made only after two reports had been ignored by a Coalition government and the Attorney- General. But instead of a national conversation about the disturbing findings of the report, all serious scrutiny was avoided, and what followed was an astonishing and genuinely troubling campaign against Triggs and against the very existence of the Human Rights Commission.
Leading the charge were senior members of the Coalition, including George Brandis, Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison and the then prime minister Tony Abbott, in conjunction with The Australian. Triggs was routinely mocked and labelled biased, lacking in credibility, and untenable in her position. At its peak, during an unprecedented circus of a Senates Estimate hearing, the chair, Ian Macdonald, openly touted that he hadn’t read The Forgotten Children report because he was “far too busy”. Triggs was even quietly offered an alternative position by the Attorney- General, if she stepped down as head of the Commission – something Triggs flatly refused.
Instead, Triggs endured the abuse and mockery unbowed, seeing out the full term of her presidency at the Commission. Today, on the other side of it, she continues, not silenced or intimidated, but persevering in her belief that everyone should have access to their rights, as chair of Justice Connect – an organisation that provides pro-bono legal services to vulnerable communities. She is also about to embark on a new role with the United Nations as chair of a panel on sexual harassment, and, later in 2018, her book, Speaking Up, is due for release.
When Triggs does speak about her experiences, she does so with refreshingly raw honesty, acknowledging the strain created in her life through being undermined and bullied for years as a senior figure. But alongside her vulnerability sits an air of calm resolve and dignity, a hallmark of the few who have remained steadfastly aligned to their truths and to the service of others, untainted by self-interest and uncaptured by the interests of the powers that be.
As targeted as her powerful detractors were, Triggs explains her belief that the campaign against her was in fact not personal but consistent with a broader, ideological attack against the notion of human rights, and also against the institutions designed to protect democracy. Democracy is not just our right to vote once every three years, but a delicate set of checks and balances, which depends on free and functioning parliaments, courts and organisations like the Commission.
Today, I would say we find ourselves in a nation where power continues to be concentrated into the hands of individual ministers under the catch-cry of anti-terrorism and national security, with the normal checks and balances of the judiciary being eroded. So devoid are we of a political leadership that values everyone’s right to a dignified life, that we have senior figures of the government resorting to race politics to stoke fear as elections near.
We have a Constitution which to this very day, includes race provisions, providing the government with ‘special’ powers to legislate specifically for Indigenous Australians. We hold people indefinitely in detention, until they kill themselves because they cannot bear the torture anymore. We are the only western democracy in the world without a Bill of Rights. And all the while, we are being hoaxed into believing that the only right worth protecting is that of freedom of speech for extremist right wing commentators.
And so it is that, in such an Australia, Professor Gillian Triggs is an icon.
The late and great professor of literature Joseph Campbell said, “We all operate in our society in relation to a system. Now, is the system going to eat you up and relieve you of your humanity or are you going to be able to use the system to human purposes?” Professor Triggs is a profound example of the latter. The human purpose for which she uses the system is to insist that everyone has a right to have rights.
And with that belief, she represents the many ordinary and decent Australians who understand that with power, does not come a right to abuse and self-gain, but a responsibility. A responsibility to ensure that the systems we live in and the institutions we create do not act to quell the dignities and hopes of the myriad people who make up the fabric of our society, but allows them to thrive.
This belief, and our action towards it, is an illumination we must salvage. In a world becoming increasingly darkened through the escalating war between truth and politics, it is the light we need to navigate our way back home to human kindness.
This article was first published in The Adelaide Review