Facts are as popular as bull ants at a picnic in many contemporary discussions about contentious issues. They are handicaps to hyperbole and counterproductive of controversy.
The recent barney about The Forgotten Children report by Professor Gillian Triggs provides an unfortunate illustration. Allow me to be a wet blanket by outlining the pertinent facts.
The Australian Human Rights Commission is an institution established by the Australian Parliament in 1986 and renamed in 2008. It is a statutory body operating independently of the government. The Act establishing it gives it functions in relation to many named international instruments. Since 2012, its President has been Professor Gillian Triggs, a highly respected person with a distinguished career in the law.
Any Report by the Commission must be tabled in Parliament within 15 sittings days of its presentation to government (s.46). A Report becomes a public document only upon its tabling. Until that date, it is the confidential property of the government.
Between February and October 2014, Professor Triggs conducted an enquiry about the vexed issue of children in detention. On 1 November 2014 she submitted her Report. It could have been tabled on any sitting day between that date and the latest possible day, being 11 February 2015. It was released on that day!
Before turning to the Government’s response to the Report, four matters are worthy of note.
First, the attitude of the Coalition Government to Professor Triggs might be gained from the behaviour of Minister Morrison when he gave evidence before her in August 2014. One report quoted a senior journalist as saying, “I have not seen such a level of disrespect either in Senate estimates or in any other kind of inquiry in my entire career”.
Secondly, two weeks before the Report was tabled, the Government sought the resignation of Professor Triggs.
Thirdly, the report contains as Appendix 8 the Departmental response to the draft Report which had been provided in early October to the Department for its input.
Fourthly, a reading of the Report does not disclose any bias against the Coalition Government. It reports factually the situation which existed under Labor until the election at the end of 2013, and that which existed thereafter under the Coalition. Its whole thrust is directed to the facts of the detention of children and the terrible adverse effects of that detention. Among other things, the Preface to the Report states that:
- Bowen and Morrison both agreed on oath before the inquiry that holding children in detention does not deter asylum seekers.
- The policies and practices of Labor and Coalition governments are in serious breach of international Covenants.
- Labor reintroduced offshore transfers.
- After the change of government at the end of 2013, Professor Triggs decided to await any changes in policy before considering an inquiry.
- In relation to changes after the inquiry started, “The Commission is pleased to recognise these changes as being in the best interests of many asylum seeker children”.
In the circumstances, the response of the Government was puzzling, especially in light of the fact that it had three months to determine its response. Tony Abbott accused the Commission of orchestrating a “transparent stitch-up”, described the Report as a “blatantly partisan exercise”, and said that “The Human Rights Commission ought to be ashamed of itself”. To use the vernacular, the Government trashed the Report.
That response was most regrettable for a number of reasons, the major two of which were the attack on the rule of law and the diverting of attention from a valuable Report which addressed an issue of enormous importance.
A chorus of support for Professor Triggs rang out. It was well illustrated in a joint media release by the Australian Bar Association and the Law Council of Australia.
“Personal criticism directed at (Professor Triggs) or at any judicial or quasi-judicial officer fulfilling the duties of public office as required by law is an attack upon the independence and integrity of the Commission and undermines confidence in our system of justice and human rights protection.
“Those who are critical of Professor Triggs and the Commission need only stop and read the Report to see that it is concerned with detention practices both of the current and of the former government… personal attacks deflect attention from the very serious findings of the Report and place an individual office holder under significant pressure.”
John Hassett was for 18 years a County Court Judge, a foundation member and sometime chair of the Melbourne Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace from 1993 for 8 years, and for 5 years a member of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, a peak body of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.