Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, former Policy Director of The Institute of Public Affairs, must be revelling in the Abbott government’s attack on the integrity of the AHRC President, Professor Gillian Triggs, even if few others can. Wilson has leapt at the opportunity to demonstrate what he stands for. Do nothing. Watch others put the boot in. Then pick up your reward.
To the rest of us, however, the attack on Professor Triggs marks a dark new chapter in the descent of the Abbott government as it prosecutes every means available to get its own way and replace Triggs with Wilson. It clearly plans to induce Triggs to resign, leaving the AHRC presidency available to a more malleable, more ideologically correct, less bothersome candidate. Triggs’ replacement will avoid any real scrutiny; asking of questions or calling the government to account. Wilson would be ideal for the job.
Triggs, however, is made of sterner stuff. After suffering nine hours of unconscionable bullying by senate committee members on Tuesday, the professor has so far resisted all coercion and duress; maintaining both her dignity and her right to continue to discharge her responsibilities. Yet Abbott appears on the news tonight baying for her blood. The government, he says, has lost faith in the commissioner. Lost faith? This could be a protracted foolhardy campaign in which the LNP loses heavily as it so clearly acts in bad faith.
In the process of trying to reduce Gillian Triggs’ resolve, the government has made an ass of itself. And in the process it has revealed its ‘freedom commissioner’, Tim Wilson to be an ass. Above all it has opened up for all the world to see its own, unique, asinine notion of freedom. Wilson’s case is instructive in highlighting the limited sense in which this government understands freedom.
Wilson represents LNP/IPA freedom, a type of neoliberal or Tea Party freedom, a ‘free-market’ variety of freedom which compels him to hang back when common decency alone would prompt any reasonable human being to defend his President. Triggs has been bullied, belittled and branded a political stooge. Yet Wilson won’t interfere, it seems, on principle.
Wilson has not lifted a finger to defend Triggs. “I support all my colleagues,” he said, when asked if he supported Professor Triggs. “I’m not going to get involved in fuelling the debate around this report.” While long-term arbitrary detention of children is not in anyone’s interests, he says, he supports the government’s asylum seeker policy. But by not getting involved, he condones his government’s cruelty and brutality. He fuels debate whether he likes it or not, precisely by choosing to watch on. Why?
The “free market approach” to human rights ignores existing power relations, an approach which protects human rights for the strong but offers naught to the disadvantaged or the rest of us. It is why Attorney General, George Brandis took a shine to young Tim in the first place. Yet there seems to be more at work than this ideology. Should the attacks lead to Triggs’ resignation, Wilson, the lone neoliberal of all the HR commissioners, stands favourite to get her job. He has the right neoliberal credentials. As the IPA, the power behind Abbott’s throne, dared put it recently, ‘It is comforting that there is at least one supporter of freedom in the Human Rights Commission.’
The government’s furious assault on Triggs may be seen at base as a convenient distraction from the substance of her report, The Forgotten Children, which finds that detaining children breached Australia’s international obligations, and calls for a royal commission and for the children in immigration detention to be released. This reading of events, however, does not take into account Brandis’ orchestrated campaign to get the senate committee to put the boot in. Nor does it heed the signs of its game plan to replace Triggs with Wilson.
As a distraction, the government’s concerted character assassination on Triggs, is another performance in its theatre of cruelty, so far, comprising an attack by the PM in parliament, numerous character assassinations and a nine hour inquisition of Triggs before a senate estimates review committee yesterday chaired by Ian MacDonald, who was flippant about his damning decision not to read the report with: I’ve got plenty of things to read,’ thereby instantly clearing himself from any suspicion of acting in good faith – and for good measure insulting Triggs and demeaning her inquiry. He also abused his position as chairman to chide Triggs. Women of the senate leapt to her defence.
Keating famously called the senate ‘unrepresentative swill’ but a less flattering low was reached by Liberal Senator Barry O’Sullivan when he boomed: ‘Just thought you would like to hear a man’s voice,’ This moronic, boorish gibe was made when Ian MacDonald, the chair bought into the debate by alleging that Triggs had ‘done nothing’ during the Labor government. Senator Penny Wright justly objected to the chairman’s attack. To O’Sullivan, however, too many women were talking. His insult to proceedings marked a new low in decorum and respect for women. Women will find it inexcusable unforgiveable. The spectacle of Gillian Triggs’ ritual abasement by nine hours of bullying into resignation by our nation’s elected representatives degrades all of us. It marks another, irretraceable step in the Abbott government’s steep decline.
Abbott and Brandis’s unprecedented attack on Triggs claims that the HRC’s report on children in immigration detention is partisan and politically motivated. But why so late? Brandis implausibly claims it was not until mid-January that he read politics and partisanship into The Forgotten Children report. He was given the report in October 2014. The government’s accusations and smear campaign bear all the markings of a setup.
Furthermore, the claims are clearly false. Any objective reading reveals the HRC report to be equally critical of both Coalition and Labor governments, over their treatment of children in detention. If Brandis has a legitimate gripe about the timing of the report, he hasn’t articulated it in any proper way, preferring to buy into Tony Abbott’s outright attack on Triggs’ integrity.
As a ‘Freedom Commissioner,’ Wilson might be expected to voice an opinion on the blatant attempt by the PM and the Attorney-General to curtail Triggs’ freedom to report her findings without fear or favour. Yet he has said nothing. Some comment is warranted, even mandated, even if Wilson cannot bring himself to defend his president from the government’s attacks on her integrity and impartiality. Yet there is silence from his quarter. Tim represents this government’s new breed of human rights watch dog; a lame, tame, toothless pup waiting to be thrown the next doggie biscuit.
Every dog has his day. Wilson would be happy that the words political and partisan were not being applied to him. He was given his current five year job as Freedom Commissioner by an AG and a PM who created it for him in December 2013. Why? Balance was required, as George Brandis explained:
”The appointment of Mr Wilson to this important position will help to restore balance to the Australian Human Rights Commission which, during the period of the Labor government, had become increasingly narrow and selective in its view of human rights.”
What Brandis chose not to mention was that earlier in 2013, the IPA had called for the Human Rights Commission to be abolished, a point Shadow Attorney Mark Dreyfus quickly raised on news of Wilson’s appointment.
“How can Mr Wilson possibly undertake the role of a Human Rights Commissioner when it’s obvious he has such contempt for the Commission itself?” Dreyfus said. “By appointing Mr Wilson, Senator Brandis has sent a strong signal about exactly the kind of blatant political agenda he wishes to pursue as Attorney-General.”
Imagine the phone call from George Brandis. No need to put in a job application; no need for any interview; just let us know and we’ll take care of all the rest, Tim. Duties? All you have to do is keep our end up, Tim. 18C has to go. Triggs ditto. Hang in there and you are a real chance for her position. And by the way, we will start you on $322,000. What young upwardly mobile Liberal party member wouldn’t have surrendered their membership to embrace such an irresistible opportunity?
Wilson’s inaction is an indictment of himself and his government and adds to the ugly spectacle of an orchestrated government attack on the independence and impartiality of one of its most distinguished commissioners. It is above all a warning to all citizens of how our Team Australia government deals with criticism or dissent. Above all it says dreadful things about its view of the status of women. Should the Abbott government game plan succeed, the teeth will have been pulled from the Human Rights Commission, leaving a pliant lap dog in the service of the government, pretending to protect the nation’s human rights while it fawns all over its master.