Gillian Triggs labels Turnbull government 'disgraceful'

Gillian Triggs President of the Human Rights Commission and Senator George Brandis during Budget Estimates at Parliament House, Canberra on Thursday 25 May 2017. Photo: Andrew Meares
Gillian Triggs President of the Human Rights Commission and Senator George Brandis during Budget Estimates at Parliament House, Canberra on Thursday 25 May 2017. Photo: Andrew Meares

Gillian Triggs has unloaded on the Turnbull government, labelling its actions "disgraceful", and accusing it of abusing executive power and manipulating the truth.

In her first public speech since stepping down as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission in July, Professor Triggs attacked Coalition government ministers for interfering with the judicial system and for destroying the integrity of Parliament by peddling "alternative facts".

"A culture of post-truth has allowed politicians and Parliament to reject evidence based reports by credible agencies in favour of populist decision-making that denies the truth and responds to fear," she told UNSW's Power to Persuade symposium in Canberra on Wednesday.

"This is particularly the case in relation to refugees, asylum seekers, terrorism, and conflict matters in general," she said.

Professor Triggs said Australia was setting itself to re-enact a version of George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984.

"You'll remember when the party oligarch says to the hero: 'reality is not external, reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else, whatever the party holds to be truth is the truth'," she said.

"I think we are coming closer and closer to that every day as the truth is manipulated in the interests of party politics."

Now a University of Melbourne academic, Professor Triggs also referred to the Turnbull government's "extraordinary and unprecedented growth in executive decision-making contrary to the principles of the separation of powers".

She alluded to the enhanced remit of the Immigration Minister and the newly created Home Office before taking aim at three ministers who faced contempt of court charges for describing terrorism sentencing in Victoria as "weak".

"We have ministers now with non-compellable and non-reviewable purposes that are not subject to review by the courts," she said. "We have seen a corresponding diminution in the role of the courts, as a lawyer that is something that I am especially concerned about."

The speech is the latest in a long line of public interjections from Professor Triggs, who frequently clashed with Attorney-General George Brandis and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton during her five-year tenure after she initiated the Forgotten Children Inquiry into Australia's immigration system.

She said criticism of her by the government, which accused her of bias for not launching the inquiry when Labor was in power and children were being detained, was "incredibly disappointing".

"I think this was a powerful, credible report that was denigrated by the government," she said, adding that the report covered Labor's time in power and they did not respond with an attack on the report's integrity.

Professor Triggs said she was complimented by the Swiss Human Rights Commissioner on the uniqueness of the findings.

"I thought no other county in the world does this to children, so of course there is no other report like it," she said.

She said false allegations launched by Turnbull cabinet ministers that humanitarian group Save the Children were encouraging detainees to self-harm to get public sympathy, was "a disgraceful thing to do," and allowed for the amendments to the 2015 Australian Border Force Act to prevent medical professionals and teachers from speaking out on conditions in detention centres.

The secrecy provisions were quietly abandoned by Mr Dutton last week in the face of court challenges.

Professor Triggs argued provisions that prevent public servants from speaking out against the government also needed to be amended to help counter the problem of political insiders and advisors who get preselection without experiencing the workforce outside of Canberra.

She said public servants needed to counteract this narrative by being "eternally vigilant in maintaining their tradition of frank and fearless advice based on evidence".

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This story Gillian Triggs labels Turnbull government 'disgraceful' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.