Scott Morrison's treatment of Gillian Triggs is endemic of the government's wider problem with women

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.

Those who know Gillian Triggs remark how calm she is. How composed.

It’s a common characterisation of women of power; a way to illustrate that this woman is not like the other caricatures: the shrieking harridans, the manipulaters, the tantrum-chuckers.

Yet if Triggs, the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, had chosen to throw a tantrum last week at the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, it would have been quite forgivable.

Here’s why. Last Friday was the fourth in the series of public hearings for the Inquiry - and the first in Canberra. The Inquiry is being held to dissect one of the most tragic aspects of this country’s appalling treatment of refugees, the children in immigration detention. Triggs presides over these hearings and, in between these sessions, pores over the evidence of the damage that detention does to these small beings. Confronting and depressing work.


So, this last session was not only the first one in Canberra but was also the first time in living memory that a senior government minister and his officious offsider, the secretary of his department, decided that there would be no serious, respectful participation.

Bowles’s behaviour has already drawn criticism for his belligerence during these hearings but last Friday, even he was outdone by his master, Scott Morrison, whose empathy bypass could only have been declared a resounding success once he embraced the role of Minister for Border Protection in this government.

And that’s precisely what happened on Friday as time after time, Morrison interrupted Triggs or – if she dared to keep speaking – he just spoke over the top of her.

Said one senior journalist last week: “I have not seen such a level of disrespect either in Senate estimates or any other kind of inquiry in my entire career.”

This exchange happened after Triggs repeatedly tried to get the Minister to directly answer her questions.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: You've been in government now for nearly a year and you've spent a lot of time today saying that the problems really derive from the former government. Our job is not…

SCOTT MORRISON: Well, the children didn't turn up under this government except for 350; 8,400 turned up under the previous government Madam President…

GILLIAN TRIGGS: At least that number is still in detention.

SCOTT MORRISON: …so I think that's a fair statement.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: So you have been saying it repeatedly this morning.

SCOTT MORRISON: Because it's true Madam President.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: Well, we're concerned not with the political blame but we're trying to understand why these children are still in detention.

Triggs herself would, I’m sure, be reluctant to have that behaviour characterised as misogynist – pehaps Morrison would be equally as churlish with others.

The demeanour of both Morrison and Bowles comes as no surprise - yet another symptom of an entire government for whom male privilege and male entitlement are the default. And women, well, it’s been nearly a year since the Prime Minister said there were women knocking on the door of cabinet. Yet they still can’t come in.

Earlier this year, Mary Beard, the professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, delivered a cutting analysis of the challenges facing women speaking in the public sphere. She retold Homer’s tale of Telemachus,  son of Odysseus and sainted Penelope. The little upstart decides to tell off his mother: “Go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”

That tale, writes Beard, is “a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.”

So who is doing battle here?

Triggs’s record is impressive: a consultant on International Law to Mallesons Stephen Jaques, a Board Member of the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH), the Australian representative on the Council of Jurists for the Asia Pacific Forum for National Human Rights Institutions, Chair of the Board of the Australian International Health Institute, a member of the Attorney General's International Legal Service Advisory Council and Chair of the Council of Australian Law Deans.

Morrison, on the other hand, has worked for various tourism bodies, the Property Council of Australia; and was, for several years, the state director for the Liberal Party in NSW. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – but it’s certainly not the ideal preparation for the grave task Morrison has at hand.

Observers at the hearings last Friday say the mood was confrontational, even angry. Others say that the way Morrison behaved on Friday is typical of his combative nature but “he was worse with Gillian”. Said one: “The fiery nature of these exchanges is not typical.” And: “Morrison likes to feel he’s the cleverest in the room.”

Which would not be possible in the company of President Gillian Triggs, who has guided the AHRC to many victories over the past few months – that must have the government reeling. Or at least furious that here is one woman they just can’t silence.

Follow me on Twitter @jennaprice 



  • It did not seem to worry Triggs, that under Labor over a thousand illegal immigrants drowned and many thousand more were flooding into this country at great cost to us due to Labor's policy of having virtually no border protection policy. Triggs has clearly used her inquiry as a political ploy to obstruct and embarass the government. Not only should she be relieved of her position but the government must be allowed to get on with its responsibilities, one of which is to secure our borders from unauthorised arrivals.

    Date and time
    August 25, 2014, 2:02PM
    • 1. Those "illegal immigrants" were asylums seekers. Our own government bodies have even had to grudgingly admit that over 90% of asylum seekers are found to be genuine refugees. But nice attempt to dehumanise them with your language.

      2. Refugees seeking asylum have always and will always take risks - even risking their lives - when desperate enough to flee their homes and seek a new life. This is not the fault of the Labor government, though it could be argued to be the collective fault of all international governments for failing to properly address humanitarian crises. But if you really do want to start pointing fingers... remind me which government it was that supported Australia joining the "coalition of the willing" in the illegal invasion of Iraq? ... how many extra refugees do you think that created?

      Red Pony
      Date and time
      August 25, 2014, 5:06PM
    • i don't think anyone would disagree that there is a global refugee problem, but when trigg and counsel assisting failed to illicit the responses they wanted to hear from morrison, her frustration mounted and she crossed the line with her 'allocation of meaning' to morrison's responses... this was both unprofessional and partisan and in hind-site, given her long legal background, would have been deeply embarrassing for her, if she did not feel this way, she should seriously re-consider her position as president!

      Date and time
      August 25, 2014, 5:43PM
    • If anyone watched last week's public hearing then they would have seen Morrison destroy Triggs and her ridiculous and emotive attempts to discredit him. It was a very impressive display by Morrison, who is performing his duties brilliantly. If you don't agree with me then maybe you will agree with one of Labor's key talking heads, Dee Madigan, who said that Triggs significantly overplayed her hand and lost. I wish all Ministers were as equally capable as Morrison. PS Trying to portray Morrison as a misogynist is laughable and shows the author has no better arguments to put forward.

      Date and time
      August 25, 2014, 6:36PM
    • @ matriciana August 25, 2014, 2:02PM

      "It did not seem to worry Triggs, that under Labor over a thousand illegal immigrants drowned and many thousand more were flooding into this country"

      1 / Was that question raised, and if so can you point to its relevance to what is being investigated NOW?

      2 / How do you know? Or is that merely a partisan assertion, an invention to cover your own prejudices?

      "at great cost to us due to Labor's policy of having virtually no border protection policy'

      The greatest cost to the nation in this is 'offshoring', which costs 16 x 'onshoring'.
      Both are equally guilty.

      "Unauthorised arrivals"?

      It is not the government's duty to "secure our borders form unauthorised arrivals" but to process them according to law, both domestic and international. Arriving at the border does not grant automatic right of entry.
      Anyone on earth has the right to arrive at any border unauthorised; the nations which have signed the UNHCR Protocol on Refugees have a legal duty, as well as it being a domestic law in Australia, to process them according to the protocol.
      So it is not the arrivals breaking any law, it is the Australian government.

      "Triggs has clearly used her inquiry as a political ploy to obstruct and embarass the government."

      So the inhumanity of both the Labor and conservative governments are secondary to your partisan assertions about the motives behind trying to get at the truth? Grow up!

      Date and time
      August 26, 2014, 12:30AM
  • Scott Morrison is a disgrace. Today the Murdoch press, led by the self appointed expert on everything whilst having studied none of it, Mr Andrew Bolt, is calling for Gillian Triggs resignation. It is the Minister who should resign in shame. He is doing an awful job in this government who is only interested in cruelty. children should not be incarcerated. Australia should stop this delusion that we are going to be unlike every other place in the world and not have migration or refugees. Instead of taking away the bread from the mouths of pensioners, this government and their bully ministers ought to stop investing our money into these concoctions and simply open a refugee office in Indonesia where people can be processed. If people jump on a boat to come to Australia, then send them back to Indonesia for them to be processed. However, we cannot incarcerate people. They have not committed a crime in seeking asylum. We need to talk with our neighbors to help us here rather than solve issues at the point or a gun or with barb wire.
    The lack of sound judgement of this government is ruining our country and our way of life.
    Finally, I want to say: Morrison is a disrespectful bully with the manners of a thug. How dare he speak to Ms Triggs in such a violent and intimidating manner. The man is a thug.

    Date and time
    August 25, 2014, 2:03PM
    • How was Morrison's manner violent or intimidating? If you apply that label to Morrison, then surely you must apply it to Triggs.

      Birrong, NSW
      Date and time
      August 25, 2014, 8:00PM
    • Scott Morrison discovered Professor Trigg was incompetent and was not even aware the facility does not have armed guards or is it locked up like a prison.

      The woman had no idea what she was talking about and her behavior of a person in such a position is inexcusable.

      Scott Morrison was very diplomatic and very much a gentleman and highly professional. He exposed the lies and fabrication and all Pr Trigg did was sprout off her credentials in an effort to hide her ignorance of event the most basic services on Christmas Island Phosphate Hill family facility.

      The most unprofessional display be a person in such a position I have ever seen. She should stand down as she has proven her political agenda is more important than factual information.

      Date and time
      August 26, 2014, 12:03AM
  • The idea that Scott Morrison is an overbearing, heartless individual has been more than fortified by actions since his appointment. The idea that his behavior towards Gillian Triggs, is based on sexism is hardly proven by this article.

    It is a distraction from the real debate on our treatment of refugees and for feminists to twist this into a 'poor me' claim is frankly quite pathetic. Morrison's disdain for others is not gender based, it is simply a feature of his personality.

    A Munn
    Date and time
    August 25, 2014, 2:10PM
    • I don't suggest you are incorrect, but I have seen a few examples now of Morrison talking over women and basically treating their questions or comments with contempt. Do we have similar examples of his doing so to men?

      Red Pony
      Date and time
      August 25, 2014, 5:08PM

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