"It was cruel in the extreme": Gillian Triggs on sexist bullying

As she prepares to leave her role as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, winner of the 2017 Voltaire freedom of speech award Professor Gillian Triggs reflects on the personal nature of criticism she’s weathered by “white, middle-aged male” trolls over her five years in the job.
By Grace Jennings-Edquist

“Most people would just have resigned in the face of the criticism that she has received,” it’s been said of you.  What kept you going amid attacks that sometimes got very personal?

[At the Commission,] we are so certain about both the accuracy of the facts and the law that I will not be diverted from what I know to be true.

Also, a lot of the [critics] are commentators with ideology, so you can’t have an argument with them because facts don’t matter to them. They can say what they like. And when I walk the streets or go to the airport, people stop me every time and say, “They’re bullies, the Australian community is behind you.” It’s given me a certain strength to say, “I will not buckle under the strength of people who are [mostly] white, middle-aged males.”

How much of that criticism has been gendered or subtly sexist, do you think?

My generation got the benefit of the optimism, free education and free opportunity. So my generation really “had it all”, or as close to it as you could get. So the answer is, I’ve never myself been subject to sexual discrimination in any way.

But I have to say also, in the last few years there’s been a culture growing in Australia of denigrating older women on highly personal grounds. I now believe that a lot of the criticism is a high level of misogyny.

Like how you were attacked over how you cared for your daughter? [Ed’s note: Triggs’ parenting of her late daughter Victoria, who was born in 1984 with a serious chromosomal disorder called Edwards syndrome, was attacked by conservative columnist Piers Akerman.]

I think that was the beginning of it, the fact that they would attack how I cared for a profoundly disabled child who had died when she was 21. For a matter of great sadness in the family, of course, to have bought that up in the way they did was an absolute disgrace. They knew nothing about the facts. It was cruel in the extreme. I didn’t at the time, but now I see it as part of a pattern of attacking senior women on personal grounds.

What I’m saying applies not just to women in public sector or politics but also to women who’ve achieved senior positions in the corporate world. They’re  attacked in a way that do not apply to men and I think women have got to stand up against that.

Of course women make mistakes. And they should be called out, but not pilloried.

What are three human rights issues that you hope the next generation of Aussie leaders will tackle?

I’m very concerned about the failure to pick up social and economic deprivation as a human rights issue. It’s not as ‘sexy’, if you like, but it is so important. Underlying so many questions is economic and social deprivation and often isolation. And that impacts particularly on indigenous people, minorities and women.

Secondly, I  think we have to understand the causes [of] violence against women… We need to support families a lot earlier than we are now.

And the last one is the growth of ministerial and administrative discretion to hold people indefinitely in detention without trial. We did historically have a system where it was for the judges to decide what was legal – we have a doctrine of the separation of powers where we have the executive, parliament and judicial system. But what has happened over the last few years has been the rise of this legislation that gives minister’s discretion to hold without charge or trial.

When you give government ministers executive [unchecked decision-making powers], you end up with an autocratic system. I feel strongly about that because I’ve just returned from Yongah Hill [Immigration Detention Centre] in Queensland where people have been held for seven years. They are held behind 20 foot fences indefinitely. No other country in the world does this.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Image: Nina Abrahams