Thuggish attacks on the Human Rights Commission should not be tolerated

This piece was published in Guardian Australia on Tuesday 17 February 2015.

Good government, Tony Abbott told us, started last Monday. It was a short-lived experiment. By Thursday, we were subjected to the undignified spectacle of the prime minister and his senior colleagues throwing punches over the release by the Human Rights Commission of a report on children in immigration detention. 

Good government, Tony Abbott told us, started last Monday. It was a short-lived experiment. By Thursday, we were subjected to the undignified spectacle of the prime minister and his senior colleagues throwing punches over the release by the Human Rights Commission of a report on children in immigration detention. 

Rather than grapple with the substance of that report or its recommendations, Abbott and his ministers immediately took to the airwaves to launch an attack on the commission itself.

Appallingly, George Brandis, the attorney general, endorsed his colleagues’ cynical attacks on the commission, an independent statutory agency within his own portfolio. It has since been reported that Brandis offered the president of the commission, Gillian Triggs, an inducement to resign.

The attorney general sent the request to the human rights commission head in a move Labor called a ‘disgraceful attack’ on a statutory agency
Read more

The children in detention report is a substantial and thorough piece of work by the commission. Labor welcomes the release of the report. As indicated by my colleague Richard Marles, the shadow minister for immigration, Labor will work through the findings and recommendations contained in the report and respond appropriately. The government, which insists it is “careful”, “methodical” and even “grown up”, will clearly do no such thing.

I want to make a broader point. This is about more than the debate about asylum seeker policy. Good governments work hard to protect the rights of children. But more fundamentally, good governments respect the place of independent institutions in upholding human rights in this country. Good governments respect the importance of free and open debate about government policy. 

The government’s broadside on the Human Rights Commission, a body within my shadow portfolio, shows us just how little respect this government has for the role of independent institutions in a robust democracy, and for our human rights framework.

Advertisement

A good government would understand and respect the important responsibility that the Human Rights Commission fulfils. The commission is Australia’s national human rights institution and has a recognised role under international human rights law. An impartial and independent agency with a statutory mandate, the commission promotes respect for basic human rights in a number of ways. It resolves individual complaints, investigates Australia’s compliance with international human rights standards and works to promote awareness of human rights in the community.

The Human Rights Commission has given opinions on the policies of all governments. It rises above the partisan fray and this should be respected by the government of the day.

Unfortunately, the current government and its acolytes in some segments of the media want to drag the commission into a party political debate. The Australian has printed implausible opinions from supposed legal experts claiming that the commission should not uphold international treaties, as opposed to domestic law. It is in fact obliged by its founding statute to uphold human rights treaties, a number of which are actually annexed to that statute.

Government ministers have not even bothered to find some tenuous figleaf of principle to cover their political attack. They have resorted directly to personal smears on the commission’s leadership, questioning the integrity of respected public office-holders who dare criticise government policy. This is thuggish behaviour, and we should not tolerate it.

It is incredible that the Liberal party, who under Malcolm Fraser established the first incarnation of an independent human rights commission, has descended to this new nadir. Truly that party has lost its soul. What sort of liberals howl with rage at criticism from an independent body? What sort of conservatives sneer with contempt at the very idea that government ought to respect basic rights and freedoms?

The people of Queensland, the state Brandis represents, recently made clear how they felt about the thin-skinned, bullyboy style of the Newman government. Newman’s political soulmates in Canberra should be on notice. Australia wants governments with the ability to weather criticism with dignity, that have the integrity not to attack those institutions we have put deliberately beyond their control. Abbott and his ministers should be ashamed of themselves.

 

First published in Guardian Australia on 17 February 2015.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/16/we-should-not-tolerate-thuggish-attacks-on-the-human-rights-commission?CMP=soc_567