In the last week the Prime Minister has launched a scathing attack on Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs, declaring the government has lost confidence in her. He cites two reasons for this:

1) the call for the release of a convicted manslaughterer;
2) the timing of the report into children in detention.

The Prime Minister’s first accusation, that Gillian Triggs displayed incredibly poor judgement in the recommendation that a convicted criminal be released from detention refers to the case of an Indonesian refugee by the name of Basikbasik. In 2000 Basikbasik was convicted of the manslaughter of his wife and sentenced to 7 years in prison. At the conclusion of his term Basikbasik’s visa was cancelled, but he could not be returned to Indonesia because of the likelihood that he would be subject to human rights violations. Nor could he be freely released into the Australian community given the assessment that he posed a risk to members of the community. So 7 1/2 years after his sentence concluded, he remains in immigration detention.

If this is the only information one has, the call of the human rights commission to release and compensate Basikbasik does seem ill founded. But what the Prime Minister neglects to disclose is that the Administrative Appeals Tribunal suggested that the reason Basikbasik would pose a threat of harm was that there was no management plan in place for his rehabilitation and he had no support group within the community. When his case came before the Human Rights Commission it became clear that the government had not considered whether a management plan could be put in place that would mitigate the risk to the community, something they were obligated to do. This meant that according to the law, Basikbasik was being held arbitrarily, which it is not within the power of the government. Moreover, the High Court had established that those who were arbitrarily detained should be compensated when released.

The advice of Commissioner Triggs was simply to apply the law, and for her to have done anything else would have been a dereliction of her responsibility. It may be news to the Prime Minister, but politicians don’t get to decide which laws they will follow and which they will ignore, nor do people surrender their human rights when they commit a crime.

The second accusation against Gillian Triggs is that the children in detention report was politically motivated. The evidence for this is in the timing of the report. Again the Prime Minister is being less than honest. The Human Rights Commission had signalled well in advance that it planned to do a report on children in detention as a 10 year follow-on from the report it produced in 2004. When the time came to commence the inquiry a federal election had been called and the government was in caretaker mode. Gillian Triggs made the decision that it would be inappropriate to commence her inquiry in the middle of an election campaign, and so waited for the campaign to conclude. I don’t see how she can be faulted for this, particularly given the report is highly critical of the previous Labor government.

Not only has the Prime Minister no grounds for losing confidence in Gillian Triggs, but he has been far from honest in the way he has presented his case. I guess it’s easier to do that than to face up to the damning reality that is described in the Forgotten Children report.

I haven’t lost my confidence in Gilllian Triggs. I have lost my confidence in the PM.

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