The Forgotten Neutrality

pressconferenceThere has been a lot of heat generated recently by the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, releasing a report critical of the treatment of the children of the “boat people” and others who have paid people smugglers to get them into Australia in defiance of Australia’s immigration laws. The report has been much criticised because of its timing – the present government has virtually stopped this people trafficking, and there are now only few children in the detention system compared with those under the previous Labour government. And yet Gillian Triggs waited until the Liberals were in power before releasing this report, critical of the government.

There is a fine line between human rights and left wing politics. Here are the key facts:

  • The Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 was brought in by Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke.
  • Gillan Triggs was appointed as President of the Commission in 2102 by Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard for a 5 year term.
  • Gillian Triggs is widely regarded as being a committed left-winger.
  • Under the Act, it is virtually impossible for a subsequent government to get rid of a President of the Commission for doing a lousy job.
  • The present government plainly has no confidence in Gillian Triggs, and has invited her to resign.
  • Unsurprisingly, she refused to go.
  • She is on an annual package of $409,600 (see 2014-12 Remuneration and Allowances for Holders of Full-Time Public Office (current consolidation as at 19 December 2014)).
  • She has admitted that her decision to delay the report was made after consultation with ministers Chris Bowen and Tony Burke of the previous Labor Government.
  • The press and the internet are now awash with criticism, some of it really quite vitriolic, of her. Some of this is fair, such as of her false and emotive language suggesting that the children are held under armed guard, and as to women committing suicide. Other criticism, such as of her decision to abandon her own severely handicapped child shortly after birth, is obviously less fair.

Now, whether you support her and her agenda, or whether you do not, it is clear that she is has become deeply politicised; see for example what is being said by newspapers, other politicians, broadcasters and bloggers. The government cannot sack her. But they can throw the baby out with the bathwater by repealing the Act and hence getting rid of the Commission altogether.

Personally, as a lawyer, I have come to the view that all human rights legislation should be treated with considerable suspicion. All too often, it turns out in its practical application to be a charter for crooks and a gravy train for bad lawyers to indulge a personal taste for politics as someone else’s expense. The worthwhile objectives of human rights are better achieved by the common law, as it has developed over several centuries, and which gives the courts ample power to intervene in deserving cases. But the ombudsman system seems to work OK in various jurisdictions, and maybe there is a place for some sort of commission provided that it maintains strict political neutrality.

If you believe in preserving the Commission, you really should be leaning on Gillian Triggs to go. A bad apple can ruin the whole barrel.

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