Magna Carta and Human Rights Commission speech in Parliament

Today, of course, we mark the 800th anniversary of the foundation stone of our democracy in the Magna Carta. This document established the rule of law against the logic of ends always justifying the means and offered the prospect of ending the exercise of unfettered executive power. Members of the present executive attended today's Magna Carta ceremony. The Prime Minister noted at the ceremony that the Magna Carta was 'perhaps the most important constitutional document of all times' and that acknowledged 'a grand tradition of which we are today's custodians, and we pledge to build on this magnificent legacy.' Despite these words, the actions of the Prime Minister and other members of the executive betray no such sense of tradition or commitment to build on the legacy.

Let us think about Minister Dutton's 'whatever it takes' remarks in question time today.Furthermore, the ugly and highly personalised attacks that we have seen on the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, are also not in keeping with building on the legacy of the Magna Carta. Indeed, it is worth touching on the purpose and role of this commission as there seems to be some confusion amongst government members on this. One of the commission's statutory responsibilities is policy and legislative development through the provision of advice and submissions to parliaments and governments to develop laws, policies and programs. The commission is, of course, independent of government. Australia has always enjoyed a separation of powers, which ensures that there are checks on executive power. This is part of the tradition that the Prime Minister alluded to.

The Human Rights Commission provides useful, indeed vital, scrutiny of government policies through its investigative powers. Yet, when the commission performs its legislated role, the Abbott government reacts with petulance and vindictiveness. How extraordinary to hear of the Attorney-General refusing to engage with Professor Triggs in a fit of pique—this from the first law officer whose job out to entail defending independent statutory office holders like Professor Triggs.

That the United Nations has formally urged the Abbott government to stop attacking Professor Triggs is a sign of how out of hand these attacks have become. I found the official government response to the UN concerns interesting to say the least. The letter sent by John Quinn, Australia 's Ambassador to the UN, stated:

Though the government will not always agree with the Commission's recommendations, it welcomes a vigorous and diverse human rights debate in Australia, and the commission plays a constructive role in that debate—

Mr Quinn's letter stated that the Australian government had not, 'Sought to remove any member of the commission'. Fine sentiments; however, Mr Quinn must have been unaware of the repeated calls by the Prime Minister, the Minister for Immigration and other government members for Professor Triggs to stand down and its attempts to silence any semblance of a human rights debate in Australia. There is obviously a huge cognitive dissonance between our official position adopted at the UN and the Australian government's domestic position. This dissonance extends to the vital matter of respecting and, in so doing, upholding the role and independence of the commission and its officers.

Inquiries by the commission, like for instance its inquiry into children in detention, provide an opportunity for both sides of politics to step back, reflect and reassess our policies in the context of human rights. The children in detention inquiry makes for very troubling reading. Its remit covered the policies of both major parties' time in government. However, rather than assess the merits of the commission's report, the Abbott government went hard and went personal against Professor Triggs.

Recently, Professor Triggs gave a speech on women and leadership at a Committee for Economic Development of Australia function. In an answer to a question, the professor stated:

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 …

Michelle Grattan correctly pointed out that:

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.

Unfortunately, this is a government that does not do wise let alone check for context. Government members did not want to know about the context. It was much more in keeping with their agenda to invent an excuse to attack Professor Triggs all over again and, by extension, shut down any discussion of its policies and about our upholding human rights.

Our country greatly benefits from the independence and scrutiny of organisations like the Australian Human Rights Commission and its officers. When the Prime Minister, the Minister for Immigration and the Attorney-General attack Professor Triggs simply for fearlessly and frankly doing her job, they are attacking our democracy and they are diminishing our society.

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