In hearings before a Senate estimates committee on 18 October, Triggs said her interview had been inaccurately reported, with quotes taken out of context and even fabricated. When the paper’s editor replied they held an audio recording of the interview, Triggs acknowledged that ‘the article was an accurate excerpt’.
The Senate Committee appearance
In an interview in April to The Saturday Paper’s Ramona Koval, Triggs criticised the ‘seriously ill-informed and uneducated’ federal politicians who understood neither the rule of law nor the concept of a democracy. Her comments may well be accurate with regard to many politicians, but were seriously ill-advised for any serving official. She would have done better to save them for a post-AHRC book, article or interview.
In hearings before a Senate estimates committee on 18 October, Triggs said her interview had been inaccurately reported, with quotes taken out of context and even fabricated. When the paper’s editor replied they held an audio recording of the interview, Triggs acknowledged that ‘the article was an accurate excerpt’. But in ‘correcting’ her testimony, Triggs made another questionable claim: ‘I had no intention of questioning The Saturday Paper’s journalistic integrity’. That is exactly what she had done: impugned the professional integrity of the reporter in order to cover her own loose words. Triggs could have admitted her interview had been accurately reported, and explained and stood by her comments. Or she could have pleaded that as the questions related to an interview published six months earlier, she needed time to check back on it and then answer. Her actual performance of inaccurate blame shifting is inexcusable.
The two together – words to mislead parliament and the attempt to question the professional reputation of a reporter to save herself – made her position untenable. An equivalent lapse by an AHRC official would constitute a sacking offence; for the president it constitutes a resignation issue. Had there been no audio recording of the interview and Triggs had accepted the accuracy of the report and apologised to Koval, she could still have crossed back to safety. But with the admission and apology coming after public revelation of the existence of the audiotape, Triggs could not retreat to the safe side of the line she had crossed.
Of course anyone is free to defend Triggs and argue the case for her. But it is harder for them to deny that implicitly they have prioritised defending her individually over protecting the human rights agenda and the AHRC. I prefer the opposite and believe that after the accumulating series of professional misjudgements, the attempt to throw Koval under the bus was one egregious action too many. After that, Triggs could stay in office only at the cost of damaging the institution she leads and the cause it is meant to champion. As Richard Mulgan observed in a thoughtful essay, ‘particularly since her run-in with Brandis, Triggs has accepted a high public profile as a wide-ranging critic of the government’. But in doing so, ‘she has helped to politicise her position in a way that may do long-term damage to the commission’, her ‘vociferous cheer squad’ notwithstanding.
Chris Kenny called it right. Despite a history of evasions, misleading statements, inconsistencies (for example, discussing the QUT case in interviews with ABC national radio and TV but refusing to do so in Senate on grounds of confidentiality and pending court proceedings) and subsequent clarifications when denials are no longer tenable, Triggs ‘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’. Calling this a ‘protection racket for’ Triggs is too cute by half, but the substance of the charge of applying double standards to evaluate her conduct is on the mark.
Too many Triggs defenders allow their distaste of the government to cloud their judgment of her performance. Their efforts to ring-fence Triggs in a halo ignore her many self-inflicted wounds. Her performance and judgment have been questionable and worse, damaging to the cause of human rights protection and to the institutional integrity of the AHRC itself. The QUT students’ lawyer Tony Morris QC told Senators on 13 December that her refusal to answer their questions about the case because it was before the Federal Court was a ‘gross insult’ to Australian judges. Former Human Rights Commissioner Sev Ozdowski believes Triggs has demonstrated a lack of professionalism as AHRC president. Complaints that are clearly trivial, vexatious and frivolous should be promptly dismissed. Instead in the QUT case, the AHRC was guilty of significant and unreasonable delays, lack of transparency and the denial of natural justice to the students.
All human beings are rights-bearing equals. Human rights advocacy requires a moral imagination to feel the pain of others as one’s own. Owing to a failure of moral imagination, ordinarily decent people allow inhumanity to be inflicted in the name of border protection, fighting terrorists or combating racism. They should recall Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poignant Nazi-era lament that indifference to others’ plight meant that when the oppressors ‘came after me, there was no one left to speak for me’.
Ramesh Thakur, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General, is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.