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August 07th 2014 print

Peter Smith

Commissioner Trigg’s Subjective Gaze

The Human Rights Commissioner's impressions of life on Christmas Island have been long on emotion and short on rational analysis. Why, if not for her adamant insistence that she wields only the straightest of bats, one might almost conclude she has an ax to grind

triggsKeep your friends close but your enemies closer. I couldn’t help thinking of Michael Corleone (aka Al Pacino) when Andrew Bolt challenged Tim Wilson, a guest on the columnist’s TV show,  to respond to Gillian Triggs’ comments on the detention of asylum-seeker children. Wilson simply was not going to bucket Ms Triggs. Another conservative nobbled by his sense of propriety and the requirements of his office? I assume that has happened to a number of conservatives appointed to the ABC board.

I have extracted two comments from Ms Triggs’ recent appearance on 7.30 to illustrate, I think, that she conflates her role as president of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) with a partisan view of the world.

SARAH FERGUSON: Now, last night on this program, the minister said that your claims about the levels of sickness and mental distress of children in detention centres and on Christmas Island were sensational and wrong. What’s your response to that?

GILLIAN TRIGGS: Well, my response is to say that I’m relying on the evidence and the facts, and today’s public hearing, the third we’ve now held as part of this inquiry into children in detention, confirms over and over again from the paediatricians, the psychiatrists, the — even the director of the mental services for those detention centres — every witness and every submission — almost every submission we’re receiving corroborates those facts as being accurate. So, the objective of this inquiry is to get to the truth, and I think we are getting closer and closer to it.

One problem is the juxtaposition of ‘evidence’ with ‘facts’. Now a fact is something beyond dispute. To say that a particular piece of evidence is corroborated by another is fine. But a fact needs no corroboration and it is always accurate. It is simply a fact. Am I being pedantic? I don’t think so. It is extremely sloppy talk from the President of the HRC to refer to facts being ‘corroborated’. It suggests that her mind was made up before the inquiry began, that she lacks clarity of thought, or that she has a bias which clouds her thinking. Here she is again.

“I saw child after child [on Christmas Island] that if that had been in my suburb where I live in Sydney, you would be asking the mother, ‘What’s going on? Why is this child not being treated?’ There were children with big lumps, untreated sores, red eyes, but most of them were coughing, had asthmatic conditions or stomach complaints.”

There is simply no profit in this kind of emotive first-hand comment. It imparts no useful information. Personally, I would be outraged if children in Australia’s care were not given proper medical attention. But I simply don’t know that from Ms Triggs’ subjective observations and her comments.

My two-year-old granddaughter constantly picks up infections from other children at her child-minding centre. Right now she has a cold, has developed eczema on her face and suffered a bout of asthma. She is receiving medical attention, but how would a passerby know that? Are we to assume the parents of every sick-looking child in Ms Triggs’ enlightened suburb are dobbed in to social services? Ah, if only all children could live in Ms Triggs’ suburb what a happy world it would be!

Children do get sick. The question is what services are available to treat them. Did Ms Triggs approach the authorities on the island with her observations and how did they respond? Did she investigate, when close at hand, the facilities for providing medical treatment? Did she come away believing that medical services were over-stretched and that more doctors and nurses and/or hospital accommodation were required? Was she advised of this by the medical staff? These would have been useful observations to pass on.

It is quite hopeless to have someone in her position simply venting her feelings. It is dysfunctional. No-one surely wants to see families incarcerated on Christmas Island or Nauru. But Australia is a nation with borders and cannot accommodate all of those who want to come here. Turning back the boats and mandatory detention seem to be working to cut illegal arrivals, thereby freeing spaces for genuine refugees waiting in long queues.

Are there other feasible solutions? I don’t know. Unfortunately those who think mandatory detention is wrong offer only the prospect of a borderless Australia. They lack all common sense and any compassion for Australians who have to shopulder the expense of housing and caring for those who come here uninvited. Their compassion is totally spent on asylum seekers.

Let’s get the balance right. While we don’t have to offer five-star accommodation to asylum seekers we do have to provide a good standard of care. If that standard of care is wanting it should be remedied without delay, all else is unconscionable. A president of the HRC who is seen to be clear-minded and objective is more likely to be listened to and, therefore, more likely to contribute to fixing things that might need fixing. Maybe Tim Wilson should have an off-air word with her.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics