RAMESH THAKUR. AHRC President Gillian Triggs: a year of living dangerously. Part 1 of 3.

Jan 2, 2017

Increasingly, voters are frustrated with parties captured by special interests or catering to noisy minority activists. Citizens want competent governance that promotes the general welfare.  

In the US, conservative cheerleaders for the 2003 Iraq war refuse to accept responsibility for the resulting spike in international terrorism. The folly was compounded by going after the only two other secular dictators in the Middle East in Libya and Syria. Similarly, ‘progressive liberals’ shirk responsibility for enabling the rise of Donald Trump by imposing their moral frameworks of social policy on an increasingly resentful and hostile populace. Not only did the cultural elites and the masses grow ever more distant; they fed off each other’s mutual contempt until the deplorables rose up in revolt to upend politics as we have known it on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Australia too the ANU’s longitudinal studies of political beliefs and attitudes map increasing disenchantment with the political process and parties. As in the US, the elite seems oblivious to the growing backlash. Members of both sides of politics have snouts deep in the public trough with reforms to end the rorts very low in priority; look after their mates with appointments to lucrative posts; and are preoccupied with playing silly games with each other.

Increasing irrelevance of ideological labels

Increasingly, voters are frustrated with parties captured by special interests or catering to noisy minority activists. Citizens want competent governance that promotes the general welfare. As political partisanship weakens, ideological labels diminish in importance. In regard to the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) students’ alleged infractions of s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Robert Manne refers to the students as ‘right wing’. How does Manne know they are right wing and why is that relevant? Its only utility is to delegitimise them in the eyes of the audience being addressed.

Labelling is important. It allows group-think, self-referencing feelings of moral superiority, denial of legitimacy to differing and opposing viewpoints, and therefore denial of the need to respond to the arguments of those with dissenting opinions and policy preferences. He is a right-wing ideologue; she is a pseudo-Marxist leftie; what else can one expect from the Murdoch press; etc. It also produces a circling of the wagons when ‘one of our own’ is under attack.

With no party affiliation, I would likely fall to the left of centre on 70-90 percent of issues. Different critics attack me for being a loony leftie and a rabid right-winger; an apologist for US foreign policy and anti-American. As a member of a minority ethnic group, I do not wish to claim any rights not available to every other Australian. I do wish to claim all rights available to any Australian. In some circles, affirming belief in race-blind equal treatment of all citizens as the organising principle of public policy is racist.

No one is crass enough to claim that conservatives are always wrong and progressives are never wrong. Yet in any specific policy debate, that invariably is their guiding assumption. This seems to extend to The Australian with the unstated but clear implication that any argument advanced in its pages is wrong simply because this particular paper agreed to publish the article. Yet The Australian, while hewing to one line as its dominant narrative, has canvassed a wider range of views and explored the underlying policy issues on race relations in greater depth than the largely one-dimensional and shallow treatment of the subject in the Fairfax media. The latter mainly caters to the virtuous circle who like to feel good; The Australian takes the trouble to examine if the policies actually do more good than harm.

As a former UN official, I sometimes feel insulted and offended by anti-UN articles and readers’ comments in The Australian, but I don’t campaign to restrict their right to express such opinions. As someone once said of The Economist, it gives you something intelligent to disagree with every week. For analyses with depth, nuance and gravitas one has to turn to blogs more than the mainstream media.

Culture wars, identity politics and human rights issues are caught in political gamesmanship as well. The rise of the administrative, regulatory and surveillance state has been especially destructive of the balance between citizens’ rights and state power. Old fashioned civil libertarians are fighting a seemingly losing battle with conservative encroachments on many freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism, on the one side; and with the subordination of individual-centred human rights to group-based anti-discrimination laws and tribunals, on the other. Human rights defenders are labelled as terrorists’ sympathisers and enablers by conservatives; and bigots, racists, homophobes and misogynists by progressives. In today’s world, attempts to enforce the moral majority’s orthodoxy take the form of social media shaming as effectively as through being hauled before star chamber tribunals.

Much of the defence of the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) Gillian Triggs seems to be driven by antipathy towards the Coalition government and the belief that they are out to get her. While probably true, this is not enough to shield Triggs from honest scrutiny. Glenn Greenwald highlights how Barack Obama stretched the imperial presidency well beyond the outer limits even of George W. Bush, strengthening and extending the executive powers of the administration unencumbered by any independent judicial accountability or Congressional checks. But liberals, putting faith in people instead of laws and institutions, went along with it because it was one of their own doing it. Soon, Greenwald notes, those powers will be wielded by Trump.

The AHRC recommended that an American, convicted of defrauding $644,000 from individuals and banks and held in detention while delaying deportation with legal arguments that the Federal Court held were ‘frivolous, vexatious, embarrassing’, should be given $300,000 in compensation. Worse, it recommended that John Basikbasik, a former West Papuan independence activist, should be released into the community with a $350,000 compensation from the government for seven years of arbitrary detention. This is someone who pleaded guilty to killing his pregnant wife in 2000 by punching her in the head and then hitting her repeatedly with a child’s bicycle. He committed a string of additional offences, including violent assault, and psychiatric assessments found he posed a high-moderate risk of committing further violent offences. He also sired 14 children with four different women in Australia. To add to the surrealism, Triggs subsequently admitted that Basikbasik had been legally detained but still deserved his compensation because alternatives had not been adequately canvassed.

If the AHRC is going to indulge in this type of faddish foolishness with such a cavalier attitude towards taxpayers’ money, even I would rather it was abolished and the issues be left to the regular courts. Despite the scorn heaped on him, many would agree with then-PM Tony Abbott that the AHRC decision was ‘bizarre’, demonstrated ‘extremely questionable judgment’ and could shake ‘people’s confidence in institutions like the Human Rights Commission’. It would be hard to find a better example of why the great unwashed feel so utterly contemptuous of the condescending moral superiority of the intellectual and cultural elites.

Ramesh Thakur, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General, is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.. 

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