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August 22nd 2014 print

Roger Franklin

The Commissioner for Getting It Wrong

Gillian Triggs, who had precious little to say about Christmas Island when the Labor government that appointed her was in office, is now finding much cause for offence on that isolated rock. Unluckily for her, she hit the outrage button when Scott Morrison was in the same room

triggsAnyone who has tried to get a word in edgeways when the spirit is upon President of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs will know that it can be a frustrating exercise, as I discovered some months ago during a Sunday morning encounter on Radio National. At that particular moment, Ms Triggs’ prevailing passion was to expose the scourge of something she termed “casual racism”, which her near-breathless monologue asserted was, well, a very peculiar thing: It seems one can be a racist without actually being a racist, the acid test being if your interlocutor takes subjective offence, regardless of whether or not offence was actually intended.

Ms. Triggs might dispute that definition, just as she would no doubt disagree that a country with no history of burning crosses, bigots in pointy white hoods, sectarian slaughter, segregated drinking fountains and perhaps the world’s best record for integrating diverse ethnic types into the mainstream needs a $400,000-per-year (plus expenses)  human rights commissioner in the first place. After a career in academia, the joy to be had in parading one’s decency before captive audiences of uni students and the ivory tower’s like-minded is not to be surrendered lightly. Fortunately for the ex-dean of Sydney University’s law school, the former Labor government had a vacant pulpit at the ready, so the sermonising has continued apace.

Back when our paths crossed on Radio National, the topic of the day was the bravery of a millionaire sportsman who had police take a 13-year-old girl into custody for yelling “you ape” during the course of a football match. That simian analogies have never figured prominently in the lexicon of dinky-di Australian racial epithets mattered not at all. She was white, he was black and, better than that, he had taken offence, so for Ms Triggs it was a no-brainer. That the girl, when finally returned to the care of her distraught guardian, apologised profusely while explaining  that she had been unaware of the overtones to her barracker’s comment mattered not a jot. There was that “casual racism” in all its foul, 13-year-old innocence, and Ms Triggs was running off at the mouth once again.

When appearing on Radio National or beating the drum* at the latest seminar on the pressing need for more people to take subjective offence more often, Ms Triggs generally encounters only those who  agree. After all, for those who must earn an honest workaday living, there simply isn’t time to be skipping from conclaves to conferences of the eternally aggrieved, regardless of how much pleasure and self-satisfaction the participants seem to derive from those affairs. Then, one day, the greenhouse door blows open and into that warm and cosy atmosphere of universal victimhood comes a chill wind in the form of an emissary from the real world. You know, that place where words uttered in innocence are taken to mean no more nor less than what their speakers intend.

We have now seen just such a day. The venue for Ms Triggs’ comeuppance was a hearing room where she was attempting to equate the Christmas Island internment centre, where illegal aliens are held while awaiting processing, with prisons where convicted criminals pay their debts to society. Had she been performing for her normal audience, no problem. But this time it was Immigration Scott Morrison, a man of blunt words, and his Departmental Secretary who ruffled the Offence-Taker in Chief.

The video of their encounter can be viewed below. Those in a hurry should skip straight to the 2.50 mark of the clip, where they will observe what happens when emotive assertion runs headlong into fact. (editor’s note: If the video fails to appear in your browser or won’t load, click here)

Did you get all that?

Christmas Island guards carry guns, except they don’t.

Christmas Island and Long Bay Jail are interchangeable, except they aren’t.

Oh, and what about Ms Triggs’ insistence that the landing strip at Christmas island is somehow, you know, an offence against humanity because the tarmac is short-ish and, therefore, using it to ferry internees to mainland medical care jeopardises their human rights! Perhaps, in addition to “casual racism”, we can expect Ms Triggs’ next crusade to oppose “aeronautic racism”. Surely, somewhere out there in Grievance Land, a plane ticket, a nice hotel and an audience must all be going begging.

Just don’t ask her about the 1000-plus men, women and children who perished en route to Christmas Island while the Labor government  that appointed her was in office.  She never seems to mention that appalling loss of human life. No doubt she finds it deeply and personally offensive.

Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online

* Drums are often associated with primitive tribes, so reference to the beating of them might be taken by some as a racist allusion, perhaps pertaining to the boiling of missionaries, or the natives being restless, or somesuch. If so, and before the Human Rights Commission gets involved, apologies in advance.