Gillian Triggs says 'highly personal' attacks aimed at derailing Human Rights Commission

Gillian Triggs says 'highly personal' attacks aimed at derailing Human Rights Commission

Gillian Triggs says 'highly personal' attacks aimed at derailing Human Rights Commission

Updated 24 July 2017, 13:30 AEST

Gillian Triggs says personal attacks on her have made it difficult for the nation to have much-needed debates about the future of human rights in Australia.

Gillian Triggs believes personal attacks on her have made it difficult for the nation to have much-needed debates about the future of human rights in Australia.

Professor Triggs finishes up as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) on Wednesday after five years in the role.

She told ABC Radio Melbourne's Jon Faine that the "highly personal" attacks on her by some politicians and media outlets were in fact ideologically driven attacks on the AHRC itself.

"I think it's been exceptional, possibly even unprecedented," she said, adding that Sir Ronald Wilson received similar criticism over the Bringing Them Home report.

Professor Triggs said she had been chosen as "a lightning rod, in a way, for major issues" including asylum seekers and section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

"There's been seen [to be] a strategic advantage in attacking the individual rather than attacking the pointed issue," she said.

"That's particularly unfortunate because I would much prefer a full-on debate about the issue.

"It just doesn't achieve anything, the issues remain unresolved."

Home affairs ministry 'lacks proper judicial supervision'

Professor Triggs said the Federal Government had not approached the AHRC to discuss the human rights implications of minister Peter Dutton's newly announced super portfolio of Home Affairs.

"The last few weeks are seeing almost a galloping move towards centralisation of government, but most particularly of expanded ministerial discretion without proper judicial supervision and control," she said.

In some instances rights had to be qualified, she said, adding that she believed the public would accept "certain restrictions of freedoms" in order to ensure national security.

"My concern is primarily that there is no public information or discussion about this and no processes in place to ensure protection of those rights."

She said many of the ministerial discretions related to counter terrorism and migration were not subject to judicial review, and the minister could overturn findings of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

These were "very serious incursions into the separation of powers [and] the power of the judiciary to make independent judgments".

Australians don't understand constitution

Professor Triggs said part of the reason the AHRC had failed to "cut through" in her time as president was that Australians did not understand their rights.

"We don't educate in these areas; young people don't understand the constitution."

She said issues such as the centralisation of government and the expansion of ministerial discretion sounded "extremely abstract" to many Australians.

"It's something Australians can't relate to, don't really understand, and they don't see it in relation to their everyday life."

The AHRC had been attempting to address this by producing educational resources such as a video on the history of the Magna Carta, she said.

"That's where we must start, as we always need to, with education and with young people."

Human rights charter needed

Professor Triggs said she still hoped Australia would adopt a charter of human rights as some states had done.

"We are the weaker in Australia for not having a benchmark of rights against which government increasing executive power can be measured and determined by the courts."

At the end of her term Professor Triggs will take up a two-year Vice Chancellor's Fellowship at Melbourne University and become chair of pro-bono legal body Justice Connect.

Former Law Reform Commission head Professor Rosalind Croucher takes over as AHRC president.