Robert Manne. Human Rights Commission and Gillian Triggs.

Jun 13, 2015

Current Affairs

The Australian government and The Australian are at it again, attacking Gillian Triggs. I re-post below an article by Robert Manne from earlier this year.  John Menadue

Readers of John Menadue’s blog will be aware that a vile attack is at present being launched against both the Human Rights Commission and its President, Professor Gillian Triggs.

The Australian has been the media orchestrator of the campaign, led by its editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell, legal reporter, Chris Merritt, and its reactionary columnist, Chris Kenny. The Australian has clearly been orchestrating the campaign in close collaboration with the Abbott government. Last week the Prime Minister recovered from his near-death experience to label the most recent report of the Human Rights Commission a political “stitch up”. His Attorney-General, the once-liberal George Brandis, has more or less admitted that as a consequence of this report he has called upon the President of the Human Rights Commission to resign.

It is strange, and probably impossible for those who have not lived in this country for the past twenty years to believe, that the cause of the attack on the Human Rights Commission and its President is the fact that last year, on the tenth anniversary of an earlier report into the same question, the Commission decided to investigate the harm inflicted on children by onshore and offshore indefinite mandatory  detention–the internationally unique manner in which Australia treats those asylum seekers who arrive by boat without valid visas.

There is no question that raises the issue of the respect for human rights in Australia more profoundly than this country’s imprisonment of thousands of children over the past twenty years. As a consequence, there is simply no question more appropriate for the Human Rights Commission to investigate than the impact on these children of their detention in Australia and the offshore processing centres.

Readers of this blog will be aware that—as a result of the lethal dangers of the boat journey from Indonesia and the many hundreds of drownings, as well as the rapid escalation of the numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat in 2012-13—I no longer find the question of asylum seeker policy morally or politically straightforward. (See it is obvious that no matter what one’s views on the future direction of asylum seeker policy, it is impossible to feel easy about a longstanding and bipartisan policy practice that has wholly or partly destroyed the lives of thousands of children.

Like individuals, nations have moral characters. As with individuals, nations’ moral characters develop over time. With regard to some questions, for example family violence, the nation’s moral character has become finer. With regard to other questions, like the treatment of asylum seekers, the national moral instincts have gradually grown coarser.

We have now arrived at a situation where it is possible—and where for many citizens it does not seem grotesque—for Australia’s government and its leading national newspaper to launch a bullying attack on the Australian Human Rights Commission and its President for no other reason than they think it their duty to draw the attention of the nation to the spiritual, mental and physical wellbeing of the thousands of babies, infants, children and adolescents that our asylum seeker policy has placed behind barbed wire in many cases not for weeks or months but for years.

The attack on the Human Rights Commission and its President represents in my view an attack on the liberal tradition in Australia. It is an attack on that liberal tradition in two quite distinct senses.

The liberal tradition rests on the state’s willingness to respect the independence of certain institutions it funds. With the attack on the Human Rights Commission that dimension of Australian liberalism is under threat. If that form of liberalism was still alive to us we would treat the Attorney-General’s admission that he has called for the resignation of the President of the Human Rights Commission as a consequence of her decision to investigate the impact of indefinite mandatory detention on children as evidence of his obvious unfitness for the office he holds.

The liberal tradition also embodies the idea of respect for the dignity of all human beings. If that dimension of the tradition was fully alive in contemporary Australia we would see, without any need for reflection, that a Prime Minister who launches an attack on the Human Rights Commission and its President as a consequence of the decision to investigate the incarceration of asylum seekers’ children is unworthy of the leadership of the nation.

In the life of a nation there are certain crucial, culturally defining moments. The attack that has been launched on the Human Rights Commission and its President by the Australian government and The Australian newspaper is one such moment. It will be a bitter blow to the idea of liberal Australia if the attack on the Human Rights Commission and its President is allowed to succeed.







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