Coalition Attacks On Triggs: When Political Opportunism Trumps Culture War


It must be a confusing time for those in charge at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

In late 2014, at the Commission’s annual Human Rights Awards night, Attorney-General George Brandis took to the stage and outlined what he hoped to be the organisation’s agenda in 2015.

Among the AG’s priorities for the coming year was the celebration of a very British birthday: the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

“I’ve asked Tim Wilson, the Human Rights Commissioner, to take particular interest in promoting and educating the Australian people, in particular school children, about the importance of Magna Carta,” he said.

Besieged on all sides by international law experts and human rights advocates, Brandis made good use of the opportunity to infuse a little culture war into the night.

“The human rights that we enjoy in Australia today are not sourced, or originally to be found, in international instruments which are a product of the years since the Second World War, but have a much longer heritage and providence, going back to our domestic sources of law and reaching back all the way to the constitutional and political traditions we inherited,” Brandis opined.

In other words: don’t you forget that our white forebears invented freedom.

A week earlier the AG had addressed a reception for the Constitutional Education Fund Australia, where he revealed his interest in Magna Carta extended beyond the fact it was never signed by Doc Evatt.

“We can trace our Constitution back some 800 years to the fundamental principles enshrined in Magna Carta: limiting arbitrary power, holding the Executive to account, and affirming the rule of law,” he said.

So it must have been a surprise for Commission President Gillian Triggs when she was set upon by a gaggle of Coalition ministers earlier this month for her handling of the now well-known Basikbasik case.

Triggs found that by detaining Basikbasik since 2007 in immigration detention, the Commonwealth had breached article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states:

“Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.”

That may not be of interest to the present and decidedly international-law adverse government. But it’s a covenant that must ring uncomfortably familiar to Brandis and other fans of the Magna Carta, the most celebrated clauses of which state:

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”


“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

Sterling stuff. And more or less a description of what happened to Basikbasik, who served his time for manslaughter, only to be denied liberty indefinitely.

While Triggs’ report acknowledged warnings of Basikbasik’s potential danger to the community, it ultimately found options were available to the Commonwealth that could have mitigated this and enabled his release from indefinite detention.

Instead, a man who had not been sentenced to prison by a court was effectively jailed.

On reviewing the matter, Triggs recommended a less restrictive form of detention, and compensation.

With Abbott, Morrison and Dutton laying in to Triggs, Brandis had nothing to say, failing to draw any link between the values laid out in the document he ordered the Commission to celebrate, and the values its President had been trashed for upholding.

New Matilda put questions to Brandis asking if could understand how his actions might appear inconsistent. He declined to comment.

Complicit in the arbitrary detention of Basikbasik, former Labor Immigration Ministers joined the Coalition’s criticism.

However, in a guarded statement provided to New Matilda, the Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus backed the Commission’s independence and expressed concern about the treatment of Triggs.

“Clearly there may be times where the Commission and the Government don’t agree, but it is important that the Government never undermines the role of the Commission,” the statement said.

“I am disappointed by the lack of support this Government has shown for both Professor Triggs and the Commission.”

“Professor Triggs is a highly respected professional of utter integrity and probity. She deserves the full confidence and support of the Prime Minister and the Government.”

Triggs has also received solid support from across the legal community.

Inconsistency in culture war in nothing new. Nor is the tendency for political opportunism – in this case a free hit on a public figure critical of government policy – to taint ideological purity.

But the passion and zeal that the contemporary Liberal party shows for the traditions of British law and governance, and the reverence it holds for historical moments like Magna Carta, can’t be seen as much more than anglophilic nostalgia if they actively combat the values those traditions helped establish.

“My interest and passion for Magna Carta is not for the document itself,” Liberal MP Eric Hutchinson told Parliament last year.

“Although interesting, to me its significance lies in the relevance of its sentiment and meaning in respect of the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted today. The freedom of the individual to choose, to own property and to be judged only by his peers according to the law of the land, are a fundamental tenet of this document and also of the party which I am a member.

“The Liberal Party is the party of choice and the party of freedom. If we stand for nothing else, we stand for a system of government that elevates the individual to a place above the state.”

And yet that party chose to go to war with Triggs for defending an individual who was arbitrary imprisoned by the state for six years.

Eric Hutchinson could not be reached for comment at deadline

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.