In a stunning turnaround, pressure is now mounting on Attorney-General George Brandis to explain why he asked a Department Secretary to deliver a request to Australian Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs to resign, after her organisation delivered a damning report of the treatment of children in detention under both Labor and Coalition governments.
A Senate estimates hearing this morning had been previewed by coalition MPs as an opportunity to pile further pressure on Triggs for her perceived partisanship, but took a turn once Labor senator Penny Wong was given the chance to ask Triggs about reports the Attroney-General had asked for her resignation.
Triggs told the hearing that on February 3, Attorney-General Department Secretary Chris Moraitis met with her in Sydney.
According to Triggs, the Secretary came with a request from the Attorney-General that she resign – but there was a sweetener.
Triggs would be offered a senior government job pertaining to her expertise in international law.
“It was definitely said to me that an offer would me made to provide work for the government in the area of my expertise,” she told the hearing.
Triggs was not given a reason in regards to why she should stand down.
“He told me that no reason had been given. I said ‘What is the reason for this request’ and he said, I believe, that he had no detail for the basis for it,” she said.
Triggs, who was “deeply shocked” by the proposition, said in her 46 years of legal experience, she had never previously been asked to resign from a position.
“I rejected it out of hand, I thought it was a disgraceful proposal,” she said.
— Bernard Keane (@BernardKeane) February 23, 2015
Pushed to comment on whether the job offer was an act of inducement, Triggs declined to endorse the term because of its specific legal meaning, describing the offer instead as a clear “basis for motivation”.
She said resigning mid-way through her statutory five-year term would have undermined the standing and independence of the Commission.
As the morning session drew to a close, Moraitis was given the chance to respond. With considerably less gusto than the Coalition members of the panel, the Secretary reframed the incident, claiming Triggs had asked him to inquire about her standing with Brandis.
He said he had then discovered Brandis had lost faith in the Commission President, and that he informed her of this at the February meeting.
He admitted, however, that he had communicated the fact that the government would consider a senior legal role for Triggs, though said he was unsure of the details.
Brandis spoke after Moraitis, and said he lost faith with Triggs after her appearance at an estimates hearing in November. He said her evidence about the timing of The Forgotten Children report had been “inconsistent and evasive”.
Brandis said that since the November hearing, he had been inundated by messages from Coalition colleagues indicating they had lost confidence in Triggs’ independence.
Asked to point to any breaches of duty on the part of Triggs or failures of fact in her report, Brandis dodged any specific answer, reiterating his earlier statement.
Grilled once again by a coalition MP, this time by Barry O’Sullivan, Triggs said the commission had already provided a “multitude” of reasons for the timing and scale of the inquiry and subsequent report.
As LNP senator Ian Macdonald tried to keep control of proceedings, things became increasingly rowdy, and exchanges between the Chair and Labor and Greens senators became common.
Macdonald put an aggressive line of questioning to Triggs about the content of The Forgotten Children report, reiterating previous Coalition concerns that it had been partisan, and should have been undertaken when boat arrivals were at their highest, under Labor.
However, the Queensland senator struggled to cause Triggs to trip up, conceding he had not in fact read the report he was criticising.
“I haven’t bothered to read the report,” Macdonald said, claiming its bias had motivated him to avoid it. Bias which, presumably, he detected via osmosis.
At one point Macdonald accused Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young of using buzzwords in her questions to encourage negative headlines in the ABC.
“At least I’ve read the report,” the Greens senator shot back.
As O’Sullivan and Macdonald became even more shouty, the women on the Committee were left unimpressed.
Wondering if any Committee members will ask about the content of the Forgotten Children report.. #estimates
— Karen Barlow (@KJBar) February 23, 2015
“I think you’re seriously compromising the dignity and respect of the committee,” Greens senator Penny Wright said.
In the face of all the bluster, Labor senator Penny Wong managed to keep her cool.
“I’m sorry, Professor Triggs, that so much uncharitable is being said about you,” she said.
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