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.

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