SYDNEY -- She’s had her integrity questioned, been accused of a “political stitch-up” and pushed to resign, all the while seeing wins and some “disturbing backward steps” in human rights and freedoms. Now Australian Human Rights Commission President, Gillian Triggs is regarding 2015 as “the year of living dangerously”.
In her last major speech for the year, Triggs will Thursday tell the annual Human Right Awards in Sydney that she survived near the Paris terror attacks on the evening of 13 November, “I now know the sound of a Kalashnikov rifle” and all Commission staff have lived through attacks on their credibility.
Professor Triggs describes 2015 as “one of the most difficult for me personally”.
“I, along with all the staff of the Commission, have been subject to unprecedented and politically motivated attacks on the credibility of our professional work."
"For the AHRC, this has undeniably been a ‘year of living dangerously’ as we have drawn attention to the erosion of the human rights and freedoms of all Australians and to the diminution of the checks and balances that preserve our parliamentary democracy.”
Relations between the AHRC President at the then Abbott Government broke down after the Commission delivered “The Forgotten Children” report, a damning document detailing the life of children in immigration detention under both Labor and Coalition government, including years of self-harm, physical and mental deterioration.
The Government relentlessly questioned the evidence and motivation for report, while then Prime Minister Tony Abbott described it as a “political stitch-up” and declared Triggs had lost the confidence of the Government. Attorney-General George Brandis viewed Triggs’ position as “untenable” and urged her to “consider her position".
Communications under the Turnbull Government have resumed, with Triggs describing it as a "sea change."
Now three years into the job, Triggs will tell the Human Rights Awards audience that gathering the evidence for “The Forgotten Children” report was traumatising, but ended up “rejected by the Government out of hand, before it was even read”.
“It has been a bitter pill to swallow for staff to know that all their hard work in producing the Forgotten Children Report should be dismissed by the Government," she will say.
“Sadly, our findings have now been confirmed by the subsequent Moss Report and Senate inquiry."
Triggs will outline notable human rights achievements for 2015 including the bedding down of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), greater attention and funding to stop domestic violence and the Abbott Government’s decision to grant 12,000 extra humanitarian visas for Syrians fleeing the Middle East crisis.
But the AHRC President is “disturbed” by what she calls a “significant diminution of fundamental freedoms of speech, privacy, and assembly, of the right not to be detained arbitrarily without trial by jury, and sadly the continued mandatory and indefinite detention of asylum seekers and refugees”.
Counter-terrorism laws, now up to the fifth tranche, remain a great concern to Professor Triggs, particularly changes to the citizenship laws, which passed just before federal parliament rose for 2015.
“This Act, I suggest, significantly threatens our freedoms,” she will say.
“The loss of citizenship for dual nationals, including those who have spent most, if not all, their lives in Australia, strikes at the heart of Australia’s successful migrant and multi-cultural nation and threatens our social cohesion.”
The Government’s power of administrative detention, for refugees, the mentally ill and cognitively-impaired, also remains firmly in the AHRC’s sights.
“Few of those detained under such laws have meaningful access to legal advice or regular independent judicial or administrative review,” Triggs will say.
“The AHRC is particularly concerned by the growing instances of detention in prisons of those with cognitive disabilities for lengthy periods without releasing them into more appropriate facilities and in the absence of regular review by an independent tribunal.”
Triggs believes Australia has become, over the last 15 years or so, increasingly “isolationist and exceptional” in its approach to the protection of human rights. At the same time, Australia is seeking a seat of the Human Rights Council.
On the plus side, Triggs recalls examples of citizens fighting for freedoms, including the “overwhelming community response to Operation Fortitude in Melbourne” and “the community cohesion across all of multicultural Australia to preserve Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act,” which she describes as one of the big achievements of the year.
The 28th annual Human Rights Awards coincide with international Human Rights Day.
The finalists for the main award, the Human Rights Medal, are Maha Abdo, Rodney Croome, Professor Pat Dudgeon, Adam Goodes and Peter Greste.