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Meet the Pentecostal lawyer West Australian Liberals want to replace Gillian Triggs as president of the Human Rights Commission. By Mike Seccombe.

Hardline Christian hoping to replace Triggs

Augusto Zimmermann.
Credit: MURDOCH UNIVERSITY

According to some, we need a Christian running the Human Rights Commission. Not just any Christian, a Protestant Christian.

And not just any Protestant Christian. We need one who believes firmly that man was created in God’s image and that biblical teachings are fundamental to democracy and the rule of law. One who does not subscribe to “postmodernist, relativist” theories and who recognises that multiculturalism begets tyranny.

Luckily for the country, Margaret Court and the Murdoch media are here to help.

His name is Augusto Zimmermann and he has a quality few others do: he wants the job.

Multiple sources in the legal profession and within the Human Rights Commission say Attorney-General George Brandis has had a very hard time finding anyone both qualified and willing to replace Gillian Triggs.

Said one senior source: “I believe the attorney is finding it very difficult. I understand several retired judges have been approached and have made it clear they won’t submit themselves to this.”

The source noted that even if Brandis – who is notionally part of the moderate faction of the Liberal Party – were to find a suitable candidate, he would have to get the nomination through cabinet, “a number of whose members would like to see the commission disappear entirely”.

That is not to say Brandis won’t come up with a candidate of merit. On Thursday, it was reported the president of the Australian Law Reform Commission for the past eight years, Professor Rosalind Croucher, could be tapped to replace Triggs when her term expires at the end of next month. Brandis’s office declined to comment on the story, and a spokesperson for Croucher also declined on her behalf.

Whoever gets the job, though, will hold the most poisoned chalice in Australian public service. They will inherit an organisation demoralised by years of political and media attacks, which has lost a significant number of senior staff as a result of budget cuts and those attacks. And they will face the prospect of massive media and political vilification at the slightest provocation.

Perhaps the bigger question than who will get the job, then, is why anyone would want it.

“You would be putting yourself in such an invidious position by taking it on,” says Ben Saul, professor of international law at the University of Sydney.

“It seems like this government feels that any human rights-based criticism is a political attack, for political reasons.

“And if you criticise anything that the government sees as important to its political fortunes – like refugees, border protection, national security – you would have to expect to be beaten about the head. If not by senior members of the government then at least the peripheral figures whose job it is to neutralise any opposition.”

Saul is referring to the likes of Senator Ian Macdonald, who hounded Triggs mercilessly in senate estimates committee hearings. Macdonald famously attacked her over a 2015 commission report that highlighted the appalling consequences of keeping asylum-seeker children in detention. He said it was “clearly partisan”, although it was critical of governments of both persuasions, and arguably more critical of Labor. Later, Macdonald admitted he had not read the report.

Triggs, as head of the commission, was the focus of most of the hostility from the government and its media surrogates, but, says Saul, it was not “limited to the person of President Triggs”.

“It’s obviously part of a broader attack on the commission and its independence and role in holding government accountable for human rights breaches.”

Indeed, the government’s attack is broader even than that. It appears apparently prepared to assail any person or institution perceived as an impediment to its attempt to conflate immigration, terrorism and human rights into an electorally advantageous scare campaign.

Spooked by consistently dire poll numbers and by One Nation’s reclaiming of the racist vote that John Howard worked so hard to court, they are campaigning, in essence, against the separation of powers and judicial independence.

Thus we have the unprecedented circumstance this week of the Victorian Supreme Court ordering three ministers “to make any submissions as to why they should not be referred for prosecution for contempt”.

The order was directed to Health Minister Greg Hunt, Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar and Human Services Minister Alan Tudge to appear in relation to statements published in The Australian, denigrating the judiciary for allegedly going soft on terrorists.

The letter from Judicial Registrar Ian Irving to the ministers said their “attributed statements appear to intend to bring the Court into disrepute, to assert the judges have and will apply an ideologically based predisposition in deciding the case or cases and that the judges will not apply the law”.

As I write this, the outcome of the Supreme Court’s action is not known, but what is clear is that what those ministers said is pretty much what the government and its claque in the Murdoch media and on right-wing radio have been saying about the Human Rights Commission for years. Only the commission lacked the power to cite them for their contempt.

“The assault has been astonishing,” says one source close to the commission.

In just one four-week period following complaints about an allegedly racist cartoon by The Australian’s Bill Leak – which the commission was legally obliged to consider – there were 53 hostile articles in that publication alone. These included opinion pieces and editorials calling for Triggs’s resignation and for the abolition of the HRC, and more cartoons, including one of Triggs dressed in what appeared to be Nazi attire.

And that was just the flagship, broadsheet Murdoch publication. The News Corp tabloids were at least as feral. As our source, who counted the negative stories, notes: this was almost exclusively a “Murdoch and right-wing radio phenomenon”. The quality media conspicuously did not share the outrage.

“No wonder in the end a lot of people moved on,” the source says.

And no wonder Brandis has had knockbacks.

So we come back to the question of why anyone would want the job and to the one person we are sure is keen to have it: Augusto Zimmermann.

Zimmermann is a senior lecturer in law at Western Australia’s Murdoch University. Until this week, he was relatively unknown, at least on the eastern side of the continent. Then a story appeared in The Australian.

“Outspoken tennis great Margaret Court and her husband, Barry, are lobbying political figures, including John Howard, to back legal academic Augusto Zimmermann’s bid to replace Gillian Triggs as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission,” it began.

It continued: “The Courts wrote to Mr Howard last month asking him to back Dr Zimmermann’s application – because he was a ‘good Christian’, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Australian.

“The Perth-based couple suggested Mr Howard could speak to people ‘in the right circles’ to make Malcolm Turnbull aware of Dr Zimmermann’s suitability for the job.”

The Courts, it said, expressed concern at suggestions that a non-Christian might be appointed to the role, and argued that such an appointment would damage the Liberal Party. Zimmermann, according to the letter, was a member of Court’s fundamentalist Pentecostal Church.

That first story was a straight report. Then it was picked up by the paper’s legal affairs correspondent, Chris Merritt, who anointed Zimmermann as one of three frontrunners for Triggs’s job.

The other two were Dr Sev Ozdowski, a former commissioner between 2000 and 2005, now at the Western Sydney University, and another current commissioner, Ed Santow.

When The Saturday Paper contacted Ozdowski, he said he was surprised to learn of his alleged candidacy. “Don’t panic,” he said. “I’m not interested.”

Santow has also denied interest.

That left Zimmermann as the only Merritt “frontrunner” still in contention. But when The Saturday Paper contacted him on Wednesday, he was not initially keen to acknowledge his ambition.

It was explained that he was being contacted as someone whose name had been the subject of media speculation about the commission presidency.

“I didn’t even know about that,” he said. “Oh my gosh.”

But had he applied for the job?

“A PhD student of mine is coming in about 10 minutes,” he parried.

Yes, but are you a potential starter?

“I have decided to contemplate this possibility…” began a long third answer.

Only on the fourth asking did he concede: “Oh, yes. I have applied for the position.”

Zimmermann was similarly hard to pin down on other questions. Did he believe faiths other than Christianity were compatible with democracy, good governance and the rule of law? His answer was long and, frankly, baffling.

As to whether he believed in evolution: “I have no idea where I stand in regard to this matter.”

Zimmermann is much clearer in print. He was, for example, crystal clear on the matter of evolution in a long online piece he wrote for Creation Ministries International, where he argued at great length and with many references to biblical passages that the idea of evolution undermined the rule of law.

“After the work of Charles Darwin, belief in evolution presupposed the non-existence of God’s natural moral order as a primary source of positive law,” he wrote.

“But if laws are caught up in the faith of ‘evolution’, laws can no longer be regarded as possessing a transcendental dignity.”

The rise of the Nazis in Germany, he argued, was due to Darwin’s theory. “[N]o legal protection can be reasonably afforded against tyranny, if the supremacy of God’s higher laws is not made to prevail.”

And in talking about “God’s higher laws”, Zimmermann was quite specific in his conception. It was not some generic god.

As he wrote in another piece for CMI: “In contrast to Islam, Christianity has democratised political manners, and still is the main moral force that holds democratic values together in the West.”

Nor was Islam the only threat. So was Marxism and secularism.

Across the world, he claimed, “the most rights-based and democratic nations are the majority-Protestant ones.”

To abandon or ignore God’s Protestant law was to invite totalitarianism and mass murder. The “current climate” of moral relativism and multiculturalism was an invitation to tyranny, he suggested.

The thing is, Zimmermann is not a fringe candidate. His backer Barry Court, husband of Pastor Margaret, is a scion of the west’s most prominent political family and former president of the WA state Liberal Party.

The fundamentalist religious right has significant clout in Western Australia. It has produced a number of members of both the state and federal parliaments, and has lent a distinct sectarian taint to factional contests.

Only last year long-serving state member Rob Johnson claimed he had been stacked out of his seat by people he described as members of a “religious cult” backed by federal MP Ian Goodenough.

And Zimmermann has been the beneficiary of powerful patronage in the past. In May 2012, he was appointed to the state Law Reform Commission. The attorney-general at the time was Christian Porter, who shortly thereafter moved to federal politics. He is now minister for social services, and frequently portrayed as a rising star of the party.

We contacted Porter’s office to ask about Zimmermann’s appointment to the state Law Reform Commission, and whether the minister would support him for the Human Rights Commission job.

“Christian doesn’t want to get into commenting on the issue at all, given that he’s in the cabinet that will have to decide to [sic] successor,” came the email reply.

This government has tried to browbeat and then induce Triggs to quit. She doggedly held on. It cut the commission’s budget by 30 per cent. Still, it did its work.

One might say, God help the Human Rights Commission. But really, at this point, God – or at least the conception of God held by the party’s growing religious right – is probably the last thing the commission needs.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 17, 2017 as "Hardline Christian hoping to replace Triggs". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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