Why Gillian Triggs is Daily Life's 2015 Woman of the Year

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Gillian Triggs stays put despite calls for resignation

President of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs refused to succumb to "highly personalised" attacks from the government.

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Fury is not a word most people would associate with Gillian Triggs.

In what she describes as "probably the most difficult year of my life", the 70-year-old president of the Australian Human Rights Commission was chided as "a disgrace" and a "political advocate" by senior Abbott government ministers.

Extraordinary attempts were made to remove her from her position – from an offer of another senior legal role, to a push from government and some in media to pressure her to resign.

Gillian Triggs: "It's been a difficult year, probably the most difficult year of my professional life, or even personal ...

Gillian Triggs: "It's been a difficult year, probably the most difficult year of my professional life, or even personal life for that matter." Photo: Louise Kennerley

Yet through it all she appeared composed and resolute. She defended the work of the commission which so vexed the government - particularly the grave human rights concerns about children being held in mandatory immigration detention - and pushed on, determined to serve her full five year term.

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In her most candid comments on the matter to date, Professor Triggs told Fairfax Media that while she never doubted herself, or considered for a second that she might resign, she was nonetheless angry about what was going on.

"As you can imagine, underneath that, was a seething fury that they had such contempt for one of the sort of, in a sense, institutions of our democracy," Professor Triggs says now.

Professor Triggs, pictured with Attorney-General George Brandis, said she often suffered "political and media abuse".

Professor Triggs, pictured with Attorney-General George Brandis, said she often suffered "political and media abuse". Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

"That they could ride over it in such an obvious way, to breach all the most basic rules of good government, and do it in such a ham-fisted, naive [way]... the sloppiness of it was breathtaking."

A lawyer of almost 50 years experience, who had also previously been a Dean of Law at the University of Sydney, Professor Triggs believed the commission's detailed inquiry into children in detention was sound. This confidence was only reinforced by the personal nature of the attacks on her.

"[The reports] were so impregnable in terms of the evidence and the legal position," she says.

Department Secretary Chris Moraitis, Attorney-General George Brandis, Human Rights Commission President Professor ...

Department Secretary Chris Moraitis, Attorney-General George Brandis, Human Rights Commission President Professor Gillian Triggs, during a Senate hearing in February. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

"It was very hard for them to attack the substance of what we were saying, so the next best thing was to allege that I was politically biased."

But Professor Triggs knew retaining her composure was critical to the work she was doing.

"Perhaps lawyers always know that. I knew if I went too far and showed emotion, I could be very quickly dismissed as a sort of, emotional woman who didn't have a grasp of the political realities, and who could be easily pushed over."

Professor Gillian Triggs and 2014 Woman of the Year winner, Rosie Batty.

Professor Gillian Triggs and 2014 Woman of the Year winner, Rosie Batty.

It was this ability to continue in her role, to refuse to back down either on the issues or over her own position, in the face of extraordinary pressure, that saw eminent voices in the legal profession rally around her, and earned Professor Triggs the admiration of many in the Australian public, including the readers of Daily Life. Hundreds nominated her their Woman of the Year for 2015, and the judges agreed she was the worthy choice.

In the comments from readers, certain words were recurring in the traits they admired about her: "integrity", "guts", "grace" and "dignity" in the face of what many described as "bullying". The work of the commission, particularly in producing The Forgotten Children report into the detention of asylum seeker children in February this year, finding the practice to be not only in breach of international human rights law but also detrimental to children's health and wellbeing, was also praised.

Speaking by phone last Thursday, Professor Triggs said she was very surprised by the award, but pleased.

In her precise diction, the English-born barrister said the support from members of the public, particularly young people, was an unexpected but welcome part of the job this year.

"Whenever I'm in an airport or a shopping mall," she says, "or going to Pitt Street to get my noodles at lunchtime, people are constantly coming up to me and saying - whatever their political backgrounds - that they have a deep humanist interest in human rights, and asylum seekers and refugees in particular, that they watched the attempts to silence the human rights commission, and me in particular, with horror."

It is an episode that appears to have now concluded. Since Tony Abbott was deposed as prime minister in September, Professor Triggs said there has been a stark shift in the treatment of the commission.

She has met with both the new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who had spoken out in support of her and the commision's work during the height of tensions with the Abbott government, and Attorney General George Brandis, who had previously told a Senate estimates committee that, despite holding her in high regard professionally and personally, he had lost confidence in her as president of the AHRC.

"With the leadership change it's been a sea change, if you like, in respect," Professor Triggs says.

"The key point being, the commission and its work is now respected, and our independence is now respected and understood."

Whether the government will make material changes on the human rights issues raised by the commission, is less certain. She anticipated a greater respect for the judiciary under a Turnbull government, and was "cautiously optimistic" that there would be a more humane approach to individual cases in immigration detention.

She thinks the will to remove the more than 200 children still in detention centres and on Nauru could be found next year, but is less optimistic about an end to mandatory offshore detention on Manus Island and Nauru.

Professor Triggs will continue in the role until it ends in 2017, and though she is now well past retirement age, she has no plans to stop working after that. It's clear she loves her work, and says she may like to move to working with business on "ethical business practice" next. 

"I sometimes think about that saying 'when you're on your deathbed you're not going to be saying I wish I spent more time in the office', but I think that the sad thing for me is that I could easily be saying to myself, if 'I'd just spent more time in the office I could have written more, done more, achieved more'..." she says, letting out a long laugh.

"I'm probably quite twisted about that. I've really loved it… you do the things that you love and that's what you do."