The memory-challenged president of the Australian Human Rights Commission has done the nation a great service, albeit one she never intended. In pursuing a cartoonist and blameless university students she has served as a reminder of free speech and those who seek to crimp it
I’d like to extend hearty congratulations to Gillian Triggs, mercifully and soon to be the former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, for winning the Voltaire award from Liberty Victoria for defending freedom of speech.
It might seem incredibly odd that such an award be given to someone who has expressed genuine regret — not the ironic kind — that laws such as Section 18C can only be deployed to police public speech, not private dinner-table conversations. The woman to be honoured also presided over the AHRC during the ill-fated Queensland University of Technology case, which saw blameless students locked in a three-year legal battle against a complainant who took issue with their criticism of a computer lab segregated by race, further demanding substantial cash payouts to assuage her hurt feelings. Such is Ms Triggs’ managerial competence that the victims of that complaint were not notified for months that their ludicrously alleged racism had become the subject of official inquiry.
But none of that matters, ofcourse. As is always the case when Ms Triggs gets her facts wrong (funny, but those lapses of memory always seem to serve her purpose of the moment), she has expressed regret “in hindsight” for the commission’s shoddy handling of the QUT affair while still refusing to apologise to the students whose lives have been forever affected. As good parents tell their children, it requires a measure of bravery and decency to apologise. Lesser individuals prefer to “regret in hindsight” the damage they do and leave it at that.
As twisted an irony as it is, Liberty Victoria prefers to ignore Triggs’ history of attempted gagging and thought-policing. The worthies who will hail her have instead elected to give her the award for “work and the courage she has exhibited in the face of very withering criticism from the government from time to time.” Translated, that means anyone who presides over debacle after debacle can still demonstrate merit by staying at their desk and promoting yet even more debacles. It is the equivalent of honouring a person mired in public disgrace who does not ask to be left alone with a revolver.
According to Liberty Victoria, nothing says ‘champion of free speech’ like hanging on to your job and salary when criticised “from time to time”. This is sure to further inspire every kid who failed to run first, second or third, yet still went home with a “participation award”.
Yet Triggs did show belated courage of a sort by expressing concerns about asylum seekers in detention. Sure, she could have shown a little more courage while avoiding the appearance of partisanship by speaking up during the era of the Labor government, when far greater numbers of families and children were in detention. Better late than never, at least by Liberty Victoria’s partisan reckoning.
There is, however, a golden light to all this, as the Voltaire Award – Liberty Victoria’s version of the Lenin Peace Prize — could not have gone to a more deserving individual. Her gift to the country that has paid her vast salary these past few years came with her broad hint that dinner-table conversations also need to be regulated and she is just the person to do it. Plus there was her unconscionable pursuit of Bill Leak. Those travesties have had the remarkable consequence of triggering an unprecedented debate about Australians’ right to speak freely. This is an immensely important debate, given that our Constitution, unlike America’s, lacks a First Amendment and concedes only a weak and implied right to freedom of political communication. That we are having this loud, public and ongoing conversation is all Ms Triggs’ doing.
Other than making miserable the lives of the innocent, she has highlighted the crimping she champions of free speech, plus the loathsomeness of Section 18C and the need to scuttle it. None of this is what she would have wanted, true, but it is entirely in keeping with her record of blundering, of achieving nothing but vexation and doing so at enormous cost.
So congrats, Gillian, and please keep up the good work. Your words, actions, inactions, false memories, bogus assertions, po-faced retractions and grudging qualifications of sworn tstimony serve as the ultimate demonstration of why it is so important to keep fighting for freedom of speech.
Once again, Ms Triggs, you have failed magnificently.
Satya Marar is a Research Associate at the Australian Taxpayers' Alliance
[This article first appeared in Quadrant]