Elle Hunt (The Guardian Australia 8 June 2017) presents the view of the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, who argues that there is an “ideological assault” being waged by government in Australia against community advocacy and that this poses a risk to “the fundamental ideals of democracy”. Even if these ideals are not exactly practiced to their full extent, it remains that they were hard fought for and that they should not be surrendered. It is suggested that there is a close connection between the assault and the wish by government to silence critics.
Gillian Triggs says an “ideological assault” on community advocacy is being waged by Australian governments and political leaders that threatens the fundamental ideals of democracy.
The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission said the right to advocate and freedom of speech – “some of the most basic ideas” underpinning a democratic society – were under threat from federal and state governments.
“And it’s all the more dangerous because those most likely to breach our human rights are the very governments that are elected to serve community interests,” she said.
Triggs made the comments in a speech at the launch of the Human Rights Law Centre’s Defending Democracy report at the #Progress2017 conference in Melbourne on Wednesday.
Australia had a long history of social activism, she said, but over recent years government-funded bodies had had their capabilities curtailed. Triggs singled out gag laws on Queensland health and welfare agencies that were “mercifully repealed” by the Palaszczuk government in 2015, and a referred proposal to ban foreign donations to environmental and activist groups such as GetUp.
“Some such organisations are simply defunded. Others cannot spend their funds on any form of advocacy … My concern is that there is an ideological assault on advocacy by community bodies that receive any form of government funding.”
The attorney general’s “deliberate effort … to confine services to those that actually help the flesh and blood individual” through funding cuts and direction restricted organisations’ potential for systemic change.
“While of course individuals should be assisted with legal advice and other services, the fact is to ensure social justice and advocacy is more effective in achieving policy changes on wider issues of principle and of course of law.”
She quoted at length the “damning report” of Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur, in October last year. In it Forst found Australian government officials viewed advocacy as political opposition and “paid lip service to consultation with civil society”.
Forst had also called for an urgent review of secrecy provisions under the Border Force Act, which Triggs singled out as being of concern to her. “The effect is of course to stop teachers, service providers, guards, public servants speaking out about conditions in the offshore detention prisons on Manus, Nauru, Christmas island, Villawood and elsewhere.”
Other threats included access by law enforcement agencies to metadata, a “significant overreach” of criminalising speech and defamation laws, and constraints on civil society organisations’ capacity to engage in the political process, Triggs said.
Fake news was being propagated by the government, she said, in its “attempts to destroy the reputations” of non-government organisations such as Save the Children.
“Governments make allegations against civil society actors … that only later, on Senate inquiries, are shown to be false. The problem is that it’s too late to stop the damage – the political advantage has been gripped in short terms.”
Barriers to whistleblowing on human rights abuses or government misconduct had led to a “trend of intimidation and persecution” that had, even more recently, had been extended to attacking individuals who spoke out on the ABC’s Q&A, on social media, or “even part of their statutory obligations”, Triggs said.
The report launched on Wednesday was written by 15 non-government organisations and highlighted the urgent need to safeguard individual civil society voices.
It makes proposals that include adopting and strengthening legislation such as the Commonwealth’s Not-for-profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Act, adopted by South Australia in 2013.
Triggs concluded her speech by commending the work of the gathered advocates – “those who are perhaps irritants, perhaps a little as I have been” – in “these trying times”.
“It’s really interesting to me how many papers one can write, how many books or speeches, but what really seems to make the difference these days is that CCTV footage of that young boy in a spit-hood restraint in the Northern Territory, or the picture of the crumpled body of a four-year-old child on the beach as an asylum seeker.”
She said the Australian public believed in “the fair go”. “They are good people but they are often very misinformed, and we lack the level of senior leadership that will ensure that social justice is achieved throughout Australia.”
Earlier Triggs had discussed some of the cartoon depictions of her in the past five years, showing her “from fascist dictator to ultimately a trophy in the attorney general’s office”.
Her favourite of more than 50 cartoons was by David Pope and titled “Quantum of Brandis”. It showed her dangling from a hook above a shark-infested pool as the attorney general, George Brandis, looked on stroking a white cat.
“The running line underneath this in the newspaper was ‘Triggs. Gillian Triggs’,” she said. “I do like this one.”