Triggs warring

This should be an editorial about children in detention, but it is not.

It should be an editorial about the “extreme levels” of physical and mental distress among the children trapped in camps, about the stateless children born in our detention system, about the finding that the forced transfer of children breached their human rights, that the immigration minister as their guardian failed to act in their best interests. It should be about these things, but it is not.

Ever since the president of the Human Rights Commission completed her report on children in detention, the government has conspired to talk about anything but its contents. 

Gillian Triggs has sustained two years of abuse. Her independence has been constantly undermined. She has been harangued in senate hearings and mocked in newspapers. Government members have boasted about not reading her reports. This week, calls have intensified for her to resign.

It is an invidious thing to be the source of a story on the front page of The Australian, confirming that Gillian Triggs misled a senate committee. It is invidious because of the campaign The Australian has run to bring down the president of the Human Rights Commission.

On Tuesday, Triggs faced a senate committee that has, in her appearances before it, become a circus. Under questioning that ran hours beyond her allotted time, she was asked about an interview she gave The Saturday Paper in April.

In answering these questions, she erred badly. She said the published transcript of the interview was “not accurate”. At one point she said a section of the attributed quotes “was something that was put in by the subeditor”. Here, Triggs accused this newspaper of the greatest editorial breach – the fabrication of a quote.

On Wednesday, Triggs wrote to the committee to recant. The Saturday Paper had written to her office requesting she correct the record. “Upon further reflection I accept that the article was an accurate excerpt from a longer interview,” she wrote. “I had no intention of questioning The Saturday Paper’s journalistic integrity.”

A tape of the interview exists, although Triggs did not ask to hear it. She accepted her error, made under sustained interrogation and in the face of the committee chair’s malicious interruptions. The Saturday Paper accepts her retraction.

The interview with Triggs was difficult to get. It took many months of back and forth. In it, Triggs speaks with surprising candour about her relationship with a government unable to respect her office or its recommendations. She speaks about children in abject conditions, about cleaning up the vomit of women starving themselves to death.

Triggs made a significant error this week, but she corrected herself almost immediately. Already, that error has attracted more government attention than her inquiry into the mistreatment of child refugees. Triggs has been recalled by the committee. Ministers have questioned her integrity. Her position has been imperilled.

It is an appalling shame that Triggs’s mistake has overshadowed her work. It is important work, conducted by a person who is both brave and decent. It is tireless work, unthanked and unrelenting. It is work that may now be lost to a few moments of unthinking testimony and unremitting interruption.

This is an editorial about Gillian Triggs making a dangerous error. It should not be, but it is. Finally, her critics have got their way.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2016 as "Triggs warring".

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