Australian politics, society & culture


Playing the blame game

The government has put the destruction of the Human Rights Commission above the welfare of children

Over the last week, two issues have dominated public debate. One concerns Gillian Triggs and the Australian Human Rights Commission, the other concerns the government’s efforts to tighten security and diminish human rights in the interests of security.

The attacks on Gillian Triggs have been worse than disgraceful. The Commission provided an objective report on the consequences of children in detention. We seem to have forgotten the older debates, led by Petro Georgiou as the Member for Kooyong, when the Howard government in 2005 was forced by some brave actions from its own backbench to remove children from detention.

While the number of children in detention has fallen over the last 18 months, the period in which children have been in detention has grown substantively from around three months to very often well over a year, which, consequentially, has much more severe consequences on the children affected.

In my view, the Commission’s report was bipartisan. It was highly critical of both major political parties, which have continued to enact an inhumane policy in relation to asylum seekers, but particularly in relation to children. The government could have responded by thanking the Commission for the report, saying, yes, they agree that children should not be in detention, and emphasising that since they have been in government the numbers of children in detention have fallen from around 2000 to 200 to 300. The government could have reaffirmed its commitment to getting them out of detention as soon as possible and giving a timeline for so doing.

Instead, the government did not address the issue in any sense, shape or form. It went straight for Gillian Triggs and the Human Rights Commission. The government by its actions has created a major issue for its own credibility and, indeed, maybe for its survival. It is clear the government wanted to attack the Commission and was looking for some reason to do so. 

The government has demonstrated that its primary concern has not been the welfare of children, but the destruction of the Commission. It is maybe fulfilling, 29 years later, Senator Peter Durack’s emphatic statement that the Commission served no purpose and should be abandoned, made officially on behalf of the opposition Liberal Party in the Senate in 1986.

Over the last 25 years, we have learnt on more than one occasion that the old reliance on the common law to protect the basic rights of ordinary citizens is not effective and can so easily be trampled on by government. Indeed, the High Court in 2004’s Al-Kateb v Godwin case ruled by a majority of four to three that so long as it was not regarded as a punishment, the Commonwealth could legislate to keep a person in jail for the term of their natural life. So much for human rights and the Australian Constitution.

It is quite clear that the government wishes to be able to act free of any restraint. Ever since the Tampa incident in August 2001, both political parties have played their part in demonising asylum seekers and all those who come here by boat. Prime ministers and ministers have done their work well. Far too many Australians now believe that asylum seekers should not be allowed to touch Australia’s sacred shores. Elections have been fought over the issue, and won over the issue, encouraging politicians to go even deeper into a dark and unethical world.

The attack on Gillian Triggs and the Australian Human Rights Commission is consistent with the wish of governments, over many years now, to be able to act without restraint, without impartial criticism and not subject to the limitations of law.


There is another message also. The government has been prepared to sacrifice any person, any individual, in pursuit of its policies. When the government goes to war on the basis of a lie, it does not matter how many rules are violated, how many lives are destroyed in maintaining the argument. The Unites States is more guilty than Australia, but both of us are guilty.

The government’s determination to bring in tighter national security laws, at the expense of long accepted human rights in Australia, is all part of the same theme. The government has been at risk, the prime minister has made mistakes, so now let’s really scare Australians and demonstrate that we are doing something about it.

We have to face the fact that the government is creating a perception in the broader community that Islam is at fault. People whose families have been here for generations feel uneasy and concerned. There are more demonstrations against Islam, and especially women, who can so often be easily identified. The government is behaving as though it is asking every Muslim in Australia to say, “I am opposed to this”, whatever the latest act of terrorism might be. The government is acting as though the Islamic community should prove its innocence every time there is an incident or an act, which deserves and receives overwhelming condemnation from Islamic communities in Australia.

Why does the government behave in this way? The Opposition is not much different. Is it because it is easy to find a scapegoat? It is because Muslims are an easier target in today’s somewhat difficult world?

I was in London on one occasion when half the city was shut down because of bombs and bomb threats. In 1984, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was nearly killed, five people were killed and many were injured when a bomb went off in Brighton. The IRA was responsible, but the Catholic Church was not blamed.

When the Protestants in Northern Ireland carried out their terrorist actions against Catholics from the south, I cannot recall Protestant churches being blamed. In these circumstances, which are in the quite recent past, there was never an attempt to blame the church or Christianity for the obscenities of a few.

Is it as simple as this: if you are a Christian and perhaps even an atheist, you are one of us, but if you are Muslim, you are one of them? If that is the way our leaders are thinking, it is totally contrary to fundamental Australian values.

How often has the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia by their actions, strengthened the arguments available to fundamentalist clerics making it easier to attract recruits to the cause of fundamentalism, to become suicide bombers, on a promise of a divine life thereafter?

Ever since the deposition of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953, and his replacement by the Shah who turned into the most terrible dictator, the secret police, as bad as any that has ever existed with Western support, the UK and US especially, have interfered in Middle Eastern affairs. They have sought to bend objectives and policies to suit Western causes, rather than seeking peaceful and just solutions. The last major such effort was President W Bush’s war in 2003, in which Australia participated willingly, an unjust war. The forces that have ravaged the Middle East in more recent times were unleashed, in particular, by that evil and stupid invasion.

After the initial fighting had stopped in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stood down all of Saddam Hussein’s army and police, unleashing tens of thousands of reasonably well-trained military personnel and reasonably well-trained police with nothing to do. This fuelled Sunni and Shia rivalries and has led to the rise of Islamic State, with hatred of the West at its core.

Australia can play a blame game over Gillian Triggs and over Islam, but if that is the way we want to conduct our affairs, we will never be at peace. We need more sophisticated, more inclusive and wiser policies to help build a more peaceful world.

About the author Malcolm Fraser