IT’S quite a time for judicial or semi-judicial inquiries. Followers of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse can get an idea of its chairman judge Peter McClellan’s approach by noting his questions and cross-examination. But no more than that.
Likewise, John Dyson Heydon QC has not commented outside the hearings of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.
It was much the same with Margaret Cunneen QC’s inquiry into child sex abuse in the Catholic diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. Even after handing down her findings, Cunneen has not spoken to the media.
At the Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings into NSW politics, Megan Latham (the ICAC commissioner) has limited her comments to within the commission.
And then there is Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission which is holding its National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.
It appears that the AHRC holds an inquiry into children in detention every decade.
It did so in 2004 when John Howard was prime minister. And it now has another one under way during Tony Abbott’s prime ministership.
Which is all very convenient for the Labor governments of recent memory, since the AHRC was all but silent about children in detention during the prime ministerships of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
Yet, as Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has pointed out, about 8500 children arrived in Australia by boat during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments and many went into detention. Moreover, there are now fewer children in detention than when the Coalition came to office in September last year.
Triggs, who began at AHRC in August 2012, cannot be totally blamed for her organisation’s failure to inquire into Labor’s practices with respect to child detention in the period between November 2007 and last September.
Nor can she be criticised for failing to reflect on the fact it was Paul Keating’s Labor government that started mandatory detention, including child detention, in the early 1990s.
But Triggs is responsible for her behaviour inside and outside the current hearings over which she presides. The problem is that the AHRC president sounds more like a counsel assisting, perhaps even an advocate, than a detached inquirer who is expected to seek evidence and reach considered findings.
Former 7.30 presenter Sarah Ferguson developed a reputation for her tough interviews of Coalition ministers, which were often replete with interruptions. However, when Ferguson interviewed Triggs on July 31 there was many a soft question and evident mutual admiration. Triggs used the occasion to criticise Morrison before he had even given evidence at the AHRC inquiry.
In response to Morrison’s reported comments that the claim that detained children had tried to poison themselves was sensational, Triggs told Ferguson: “I believe that the minister needs to be better advised.”
Towards the end of the interview, Ferguson put to Triggs that Morrison was not telling the truth and the AHRC president replied in the affirmative.
The transcript demonstrates Triggs’s evident hostility to Morrison. Ferguson: “The minister said last night (that) the children in the detention centres are provided care on a daily basis … is that true?” Triggs: “It doesn’t appear to be true on the evidence that we’re receiving.” So Triggs went on the media to describe Morrison as untruthful some weeks before the minister had even appeared before the AHRC inquiry.
Morrison’s AHRC appearance took place late last week. It was a feisty affair.
Triggs appears to have taken her hostility towards Morrison into the hearing room. She seemed more interested in stating her opinion than hearing what Morrison and his adviser Martin Bowles, the Secretary of the Department of Immigration, had to say.
Triggs stated that detention centres were like prisons and contained armed guards. Morrison and Bowles refuted the allegations and said that guards at detention centres were not armed. The AHRC seems to have gone into “no comment” mode about this one.
However, if Triggs on occasions presents herself as an advocate rather than an impartial commissioner attempting to gather all the available evidence, she would be well advised to do some fact-checking in advance.
It’s true that Morrison and Bowles on occasions interrupted Triggs. But it’s also true that on occasions the AHRC president interrupted the minister and his departmental secretary. Morrison and Bowles would have been entitled to come to the view that Triggs had already made up her mind before they spoke. After all, it’s reasonable to assume that both men were aware of Triggs’s extraordinary 7.30 performance.
What’s at stake at the AHRC turns on Triggs’s professionalism — not her gender. There has been no criticism of the performance of Latham or Cunneen at their inquiries — nor of McClellan or Heydon. Yet Jenna Price (the Canberra Times columnist who teaches journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney) has discovered, wait for it, misogyny.
Writing in The Canberra Times on August 25, Price depicted Morrison and Bowles as exhibiting “male privilege and male entitlement”, while describing Triggs as the “one woman” the Abbott government “just can’t silence”. Price seems to be saying that Morrison and his advisers should accept Triggs’s statement that detention centres are prisons presided over by armed guards — or run the risk of having their behaviour characterised as “misogynist”.
Price is hardly a dispassionate observer. In her column on January 7, the academic called on her colleagues to obtain a box of tampons and “send one a month to the federal Minister for Inhumanity, Scott Morrison, as a little gift”. Imagine what Price and her UTS comrades would say if males sent an equivalent “little gift” to Triggs.
Triggs has a fine academic record and is of pleasant disposition. It’s just that she has been unable to demonstrate dispassion when dealing with the dilemma of the plight of children in detention. Sev Ozdowski, a former human rights commissioner, has criticised Triggs’s propensity to become involved in the public debate and her reluctance to listen to witnesses with whom she disagrees.
The unpleasant truth is that the sight of a child in Australian detention is infinitely preferable to the sight of a child drowning at sea at the hands of a people-smuggler.
It’s the kind of dilemma that Triggs, with a background in law and the academy, has trouble understanding.