The national broadside
The Australian’s campaign against Gillian Triggs is another in a long line of crude culture-war offensives

For the past three weeks, I’ve been observing the world from a hospital bed. One of my pastimes has been to read the Australian carefully each day, something I haven’t done since completing my analysis of the harm the paper does to the nation, in the Quarterly Essay ‘Bad News’.

During this time the paper’s attack on Gillian Triggs and the Human Rights Commission has been obsessive, petty, relentless, remorseless and ruthless. In ‘Bad News’ I documented similar campaigns against Larissa Behrendt and Julie Posetti. But neither reached either the level of malevolence or the cultural significance of the current anti-Triggs campaign.

I first met Triggs shortly after she was appointed Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner. I asked her whether she knew what was in store for her with regard to the Australian. She had no idea. Triggs struck me as a highly intelligent and highly principled academic lawyer, but from the political point of view – in anticipating she would be treated honourably and fairly even by critics – as somewhat naïve.

The campaign to destroy Triggs’ reputation and thereby to cripple the Human Rights Commission has been led by the federal Coalition. Their arena has been a Senate estimates committee. Their principal case has been a dispute between some right-wing students and an Indigenous employee of Queensland University of Technology. This obscure case would have remained in the shadows were it not for the megaphone given to the case and the estimates hearings by the Australian.

The Australian is a seriously strange newspaper. On the one hand, it is the only mainstream paper that publishes analytical articles at length. (I have published several in recent times.) Fairfax has in general given up that mission. On the other hand, the energy of the Australian comes from the campaigns it conducts serially in its inexhaustible and crude offensives in Australia’s cultural wars. Behind the paper there stands a small battalion of bigots, whose breathtaking online comments provide some way of tracking the march of illiberalism in contemporary Australia.

One of the mysteries of the Australian is its capacity to corrupt its journalistic corps. Reporters like Patricia Karvelas and James Massola wrote frightful right-wing articles when employed by the Australian. As soon as they found new employment at the ABC or Fairfax they proved themselves to be excellent journalists and thoroughly decent human beings.

Others have stayed put. There is no doubt that Hedley Thomas is an outstanding investigative journalist. But what he has been willing to do for his superiors in this campaign and several others like it is unforgivable and ought never be forgiven.

Even more alarming has been the spinelessness of the current prime minister. The campaign to destroy Gillian Triggs’ reputation began under Tony Abbott. At least he genuinely believed in the cause. Turnbull was once, however, a genuine small-l liberal. When I visited his office in 2012 his staff referred to Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz as the DLP. Turnbull’s willingness to allow the most reactionary elements in the Coalition free rein is one of the most depressing and pathetic moments in the recent history of Australian politics. I do not know how Turnbull can live with himself.

What then of the genuinely liberal elements that still exist in Australia – the Labor party, the Greens, the Guardian, the Monthly, the Saturday Paper, Crikey, New Matilda, the Menadue blog, and so on?

For some reason, they have not been able to mount an effective counter-offensive in defence of Gillian Triggs and the Human Rights Commission. The defence of taxpayer-funded independent institutions – especially those whose role is to scrutinise the operations of government – is fundamental to the maintenance of a liberal political culture in Australia.

What is happening to Gillian Triggs – a fine lawyer, a fine Australian, a fine human being – must be resisted with all the moral and rhetorical muscle liberal Australians can muster. In this battle, for the sake of the country, the bullies of the right – in the parliament and in the press – must not be allowed to win. 

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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