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The unfailing ability of Gillian Triggs to contradict herself and mislead her interrogators at parliamentary committees has to be seen to be believed. The trouble is much of the media prefers to keep this bizarre and regular spectacle from the public.
Perhaps the one thing more extraordinary than the Australian Human Rights Commission president’s capacity to frustrate these inquiries is the way other publicly funded institutions run a protection racket for her. As the unofficial patron saint of virtue signallers, Triggs has her sins either ignored or censored by Greens and ALP political operatives, as well as the ABC and much of Canberra’s press gallery.
Few episodes provide a clearer insight into the partisanship of our media/political class and the fact-free nature of their ideological battles. In this post-truth realm, a member of the so-called elite is given immunity from mainstream standards and the media/political class suppresses her failings because they want to share in the objectives and virtues she professes.
The ABC’s treatment of Triggs demonstrates how the public broadcaster often functions as an arm of green-left propaganda rather than as an objective public information institution. This matters because it has a profound effect on our political debate.
The ABC’s connivance helps swing the tide of national debate away from the sensible centre, luring politicians ever more towards the crowd Robert Manne calls the “permanent oppositional moral political community”. Little wonder we see the return of Pauline Hanson and the balkanisation of political discourse.
This week, the morning after Triggs’s latest humiliating appearances before parliamentary committees, fresh calls were made for her to move on. For comment, RN Breakfast turned to its Canberra-based reporter Alison Carabine, who is bound by ABC standards of objectivity and fairness.
“Clearly it’s a political witch-hunt by the government,” said Carabine. “This is a government which will not brook any criticism, and Gillian Triggs has been at the vanguard of criticising the government, keeping it under pressure, in particular with its detention of children offshore and on the mainland. Gillian Triggs, Justin Gleeson — they’re just two statutory officers who have dared to criticise the government, the government retaliates by consistently hounding these people in a pretty egregious manner.”
If this were true it would be a national scandal. But it happens to be the exact opposite of what has transpired. Gleeson, for instance, resigned as solicitor-general after revelations he had secretly briefed the opposition.
But let’s return to Triggs. The AHRC president invited criticism when she revealed to a committee hearing in November 2014 that she had delayed an inquiry into children in detention for more than a year while Labor was in power, and when thousands of children were being placed in detention.
In that disastrous appearance, Triggs contradicted herself numerous times in attempts to justify this behaviour. She denied having raised the proposed inquiry with any Labor minister before changing her story and eventually, under questioning, admitting that she had raised it with not one but two ALP immigration ministers.
So Triggs’s problems did not start with criticism of the government over children in detention; on the contrary. She came under fire after she exposed her complicity in delaying investigations into this very issue. Eventually she began an inquiry into children in detention after the boats had been stopped, when the only movement of kids was out of detention. Despite the importance of this episode in generating a controversy that has consumed the AHRC ever since, the ABC has never reported this Triggs testimony. Instead, it runs a false narrative about Triggs being criticised for doing her job, rather than for not doing it.
Triggs fronted two inquiries this week. On Monday morning she apologised to a Senate estimates committee for a false denial at an earlier appearance. She had denied making comments highly critical of the committee to a newspaper. She suggested the editors had fabricated the quotes. But when the paper protested and mentioned a tape recording, Triggs recanted and admitted she had uttered those words. Messy.
Triggs was unconvincing as she tried to explain all this, blaming some confusion over differing headlines in the print and online versions. Headlines were not the issue. But the obfuscation and embarrassment were even worse in the afternoon when Triggs fronted the joint human rights committee looking at proposals to repeal or reform section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Asked about the controversial Queensland University of Technology case, Triggs clammed up.
“I cannot discuss the QUT case because of the absolute requirement of confidentiality,” said the AHRC president, claiming the case was still sub judice (it could be appealed). Yet just last month, while the case was very much alive, Triggs appeared on ABC television’s 7.30 and gave a detailed defence of her organisation’s handling of that very same case. She answered more than a dozen questions on the matter.
Now, before a parliamentary committee, Triggs was shtum. “It is extremely inappropriate for us or for me to comment on this case in its detail,” she said.
Liberal senator James Paterson challenged her: “If that is the case, why did you go on the 7.30 report on 7 November to discuss the case at length?”
“As you might recall,” responded Triggs, “in that case I at length said repeatedly that I could not comment on the case; I could talk only about our processes, and that is what I have done over and over again. I cannot speak about the details of the case.”
Not true. A transcript of the interview records that Triggs, once, said: “I have to remind you that this is still before the Federal Court.” She did not say she could not comment and she did not resist answering. On the ABC, Triggs discussed the handling of the case in detail for almost nine minutes. Pressed again by Paterson, Triggs said: “With respect, if you look at the transcript, you will see that I specifically began that interview by saying, ‘I cannot comment on the details of this case.’ ” Again, the transcript shows Triggs did not say those words, or answer in that fashion.
Regardless of the damage to the AHRC, some argue none of this matters, because Triggs’s term expires next year. But she still claims martyr status, and the green-Left and ABC portray her as the victim of a ruthless government. On the ABC, Carabine said that in the light of Triggs’s treatment, “no doubt any self-respecting human rights lawyer would think twice about taking up the job” of AHRC president.
The ABC also argues the Triggs position rather than the free-speech line on 18C. On RN Breakfast Hamish MacDonald said the concern about reform was what speech it “unleashes”. This position would have it that we are a nation full of hateful racists just aching to break free from the constraints of this law.
Carabine also argued against reform and wasn’t even swayed by the ruckus over Bill Leak’s controversial cartoon depicting indigenous dysfunction. She said the cartoon “did cause considerable offence” but “the very fact that it could be published and the fact that the Press Council had a look at it and ruled that it was OK, that should prove once and for all that we do have pretty unfettered free speech in this country”.
Consider that. A cartoon is published by a newspaper, the AHRC cites racism and publicly calls for complaints, three are formally lodged, the AHRC accepts them and begins its processes, thereby having the cartoonist denounced as a suspected racist while the Press Council takes complaints, considers them and moves on. And this is “pretty unfettered” free speech.
Never mind the QUT students strung out over three years, Andrew Bolt’s columns still banned from republication or how the Leak complaints have now been dropped but the stain remains. The ABC is as interested in the chilling effect of all this as it is in contradictions, errors and deceptions of Gillian Triggs.