Brandis and Dutton play some dirty pool in their fight with Gillian Triggs

By Michelle Grattan

Last Friday, Attorney-General George Brandis and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton issued an extraordinary statement declaring that the president of the Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs, needed to “explain her comments” linking Australia’s turn-back policy and negotiations with Indonesia about the death penalty. But, it is the two ministers who should be called on to explain their statement. Dutton has just provided yet more evidence as to why he should under no circumstances be given sole power – even subject to judicial oversight – under the government’s proposed new law to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals involved in terrorist activities.

As for Brandis: well, as the nation’s first law officer, he should, frankly, know better. Brandis professes to believe in free speech, famously defending people’s right to be bigots. Yet he calls for an explanation of an arguable proposition – whether correct or not – from someone who is perfectly entitled to make it.

And this person is a statutory officer who is independent of government.

The government’s fight with Triggs is well-known. To put it bluntly, it hates her – mostly, but not exclusively, over her inquiry into children in detention. It feels she held off the inquiry until after the 2013 election and didn’t take enough account of the Coalition’s big reduction in the number of children detained.

The Coalition tried to persuade Triggs to quit her position by offering her other work; she wouldn’t budge. It is attempting to discredit her and blast her out by massive attacks, of which Friday was perhaps the most brazen. The joint statement was accompanied by a news conference where Dutton denounced her.

At the centre of this latest row is a response, delivered in answer to a question at a Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) function on Thursday at which Triggs spoke on women and leadership, when she said: “Boats have got to stop. But have we thought about what the consequences are of pushing people back to our neighbour Indonesia? Is it any wonder that Indonesia will not engage with us on other issues that we care about, like the death penalty?”

The two ministers drew on a headline in The Australian which read “Deaths of Bali duo ‘linked to boats’”.

But Triggs in her answer had spoken about the pursuit of regional agreement on stopping capital punishment, not the execution of the two Australians. Neither the questioner nor she mentioned them. It would have been wise – if not politically convenient – for the ministers to have more carefully checked out the context.

Triggs has said in a statement: “My remarks in response to questions from the audience at the Economic Development of Australia forum in Adelaide have been entirely misreported by some commentators.

“I was making the observation that any solution to the movement of asylum seekers and refugees in our region should be by diplomatic negotiation.

“Like most Australians, I believe a strong diplomatic relationship with Indonesia, and all nations within the Asian region, is vitally important to us all.

“At no time did I refer to the recent executions of the two young Australians. Rather I spoke of the future need to work diplomatically to reach agreement on ending the death penalty in the region. This reflected my early public commentary on the need for a moratorium on the death penalty.”

Brandis and Dutton were not interested in context. They were men on a mission. “Her comments on the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are poorly informed and foolish. They will also be offensive to Indonesia by implying, as they do, that Indonesia’s decision to execute two Australians was influenced by international considerations,” they said in their statement.

“Professor Triggs chose to make her remarks with no specific knowledge of the many steps the Australian government took to save the lives of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, and with no professional experience in diplomacy and no specialist knowledge of the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

“As a lawyer, she knows better than to assert conclusions in the absence of evidence. Her comments were not in defence of human rights, but a gratuitous intervention in a difficult political issue.”

As a matter of fact, Triggs probably knows at least as much about diplomacy as either of the ministers. Neither of them has served in a diplomatic post; she is the wife of former senior diplomat Alan Brown.

Even on the matter Triggs was not talking about – the executions of the two Australians – she was familiar with the issue: the Human Right Commission was in touch with a human rights commission in Indonesia.

Triggs also obviously has knowledge of the issue of capital punishment in the region, which was what she was addressing.

The jibe about asserting conclusions in the absence of evidence applies to the ministers. As a former policeman, one would have thought Dutton would have been particularly aware of the need to get the evidence right. Brandis’ cavalier attitude is alarming.

As for her remarks being “a gratuitous intervention in a difficult political issue”, Triggs was fully within her rights, given her position, to air an opinion. And the ministers’ tossing in of the insult “gratuitous” is, well, gratuitous.

Brandis and Dutton went on to point out that although Triggs said “boats have got to stop”, “she offers no suggestions as to how that might be done”.

Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Such suggestions might have been “gratuitous”.

In summary, the ministers seem to have gone on a headline, and then thought they could get away with bullying and insulting in the most extreme terms, as is too often the method of this government. The media cycle being what it is, the attack becomes the story, especially when there is plenty of actuality from Dutton’s press conference.

It would be interesting to know whether the idea for a joint statement – headed, incidentally, “comments by Proffesor [sic] Triggs” – and Dutton’s news conference came from one of the two ministers, or some other strategic mind in the government.

Dutton insisted that Triggs needed to “front the media … to retract these outrageous slurs”. The “slurs” turn out to have been from the ministers. The corrections shoul

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