When the Pol­i­tics Got Per­sonal

Gil­lian Triggs’ cul­ture shock

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Mar­garet Si­mons

“I was not pre­pared for the po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal at­tack. Frankly it didn’t oc­cur to me.” For four years, Gil­lian Triggs was a favourite tar­get of the Ab­bott and Turn­bull gov­ern­ments, and the right-wing press. That’s what you get for fight­ing to pro­tect hu­man rights in Aus­tralia.

It will come as a sur­prise to learn that Triggs voted for Ab­bott.

Gil­lian Triggs does not like the word “naive”, at least not when it is ap­plied to her. She is po­lite, but clearly an­noyed at the sug­ges­tion. “I mean, I am a 72-year-old grand­mother. I’m not naive. I don’t think I’ve ever been par­tic­u­larly naive.” Yet when she gave up one of the coun­try’s best jobs in aca­demic law to be­come pres­i­dent of the Aus­tralian Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion (AHRC) in 2012, she thought it would mainly be about putting some­thing she’d been say­ing as an ed­u­ca­tor into prac­ti­cal ef­fect: ad­vo­cat­ing for Aus­tralia’s do­mes­tic law to reflect its in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights obli­ga­tions. She was at the top of her game – holder of the Chal­lis pro­fes­sor­ship in in­ter­na­tional law and about to be reap­pointed as dean of the Law School at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney. It was a lot to give up. Still, the idea drew her. “There’s that ter­ri­ble adage. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. That ran through my brain a bit.” The law in­volved, she knew, was not very com­pli­cated – “in­ter­na­tional law 101” – and the facts were clear. What had not oc­curred to her was that none of that would mat­ter, or not very much, to her abil­ity to suc­ceed in the job. It was a cul­ture shock. In uni­ver­si­ties, Triggs had been part of a cour­te­ous en­vi­ron­ment that ran on broadly agreed values and rules. “Then you find your­self work­ing with politi­cians you can’t pos­si­bly agree with, but who are pow­er­fully ide­o­log­i­cal,” she says. “I was not pre­pared for the po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal at­tacks. Frankly it didn’t oc­cur to me.” Things started qui­etly enough. Then, in Septem­ber 2013, just over a year af­ter she be­came AHRC pres­i­dent, the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment was elected. It will come as a sur­prise to learn that Triggs voted for Ab­bott. Un­sur­pris­ingly, she now thinks it was a mis­take. For the next four years Triggs be­came one of the Coali­tion’s favourite tar­gets, and there was what she de­scribes to­day as “an eight-lane high­way” of in­for­ma­tion and at­ti­tude flow­ing be­tween the cabi­net room and the Aus­tralian news­pa­per. Read the thou­sands of words on Triggs in the Aus­tralian dur­ing her five years as AHRC pres­i­dent and you would think her a feath­er­brained bleed­ing-heart leftie, who for some per­son­i­fied “the nanny-state moral­is­ing and sanc­ti­mo­nious crit­i­cism of main­stream values by the elites”. It’s a po­tent ex­am­ple of the dis­tort­ing lens of jour­nal­is­tic par­ti­san­ship, be­cause Triggs was nei­ther a rad­i­cal nor a left-winger in any con­ven­tional sense. As an aca­demic lawyer, first at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne and then in Syd­ney, she frus­trated some of her more po­lit­i­cal col­leagues. She was not in­clined to sym­pa­thise with gen­dered or po­lit­i­cally nu­anced views of the law. She liked the black let­ters of statute and could be, some re­mem­ber, “bull-headed” and un­bend­ingly dis­mis­sive of al­ter­na­tive, less con­ser­va­tive views. One for­mer col­league says, “It was not so much that she didn’t bear fools gladly. She didn’t bear things she didn’t like or un­der­stand too gladly.” While her ex­per­tise was in in­ter­na­tional law, Triggs was not a hu­man rights lawyer. Her spe­cial­ity was in is­sues such as the draw­ing of in­ter­na­tional bound­aries, which led to her only pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing at the cen­tre of po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy. As a con­sul­tant for the law firm Mallesons Stephen Jaques in the late 1980s, Triggs worked for oil and gas com­pa­nies on the own­er­ship of the pe­tro­leum re­sources of the Ti­mor Gap, which sits be­tween Aus­tralia and what would be­come Ti­mor-Leste. In this work and in later aca­demic ar­ti­cles, she sup­ported suc­ces­sive Aus­tralian gov­ern­ments’ de­sire to draw the bound­ary to their ad­van­tage. Her po­si­tion was right in law, she says, although she’s now “over­whelmed by the eth­i­cal po­si­tion of one big wealthy coun­try to a very poor one”. “Peo­ple who see my rep­u­ta­tion now would as­sume that I would take ex­actly the op­po­site po­si­tion,” she says, but she was “a con­ser­va­tive mid­dle-of-the-road lawyer with no spe­cial in­ter­est in pol­i­tics”.

To­day, Gil­lian Triggs is sit­ting in her im­mac­u­late home of­fice on the top floor of a South Mel­bourne ter­race. Af­ter years in Syd­ney she has re­turned to her home­town, mostly for fam­ily rea­sons. A few vol­umes sit on her desk, in­clud­ing her own weighty text­book on in­ter­na­tional law. A car­toon from her time at the cen­tre of po­lit­i­cal dis­pute hangs on the wall. She has a col­lec­tion of about 40, and plans to frame them all. The num­ber 1 tram rat­tles past her door and can take her di­rectly to the city’s arts precinct, which she loves, or to the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne, where she has re­cently

been ap­pointed as a vice-chan­cel­lor’s fel­low. It is good to be home, where she says “peo­ple ac­tu­ally be­lieve in hu­man rights … they speak the lan­guage”. Has she been rad­i­calised? She laughs a lit­tle. She is not go­ing to be “burn­ing things down”. Of course not. Poised, la­dy­like, pre­sid­ing over tea and bis­cuits, she doesn’t look like a rad­i­cal. Triggs com­pares her­self to Sir Ron­ald Wil­son, who for most of the 1990s was pres­i­dent of what be­came the AHRC, and was at the cen­tre of the first wave of the his­tory and cul­ture wars. He had been a con­ser­va­tive High Court judge, but went on to be­come co-com­mis­sioner of the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions in­quiry. “He was call­ing it geno­cide, and that was a very big move. And, of course, he was crit­i­cised roundly for it,” she says. The job does that to you. “You start off over here us­ing very, very care­ful lan­guage, and you find your­self faced with the facts and the law, and you reach a con­clu­sion. Per­haps you sur­prise your­self … [When] I reached a con­clu­sion that I thought was in­escapable I spoke up for it. And if that’s the equiv­a­lent of be­ing rad­i­calised, then I’m rad­i­calised.” Aus­tralia, alone of Com­mon­wealth coun­tries, does not have a bill of rights. What is more, our statutes do not, for the most part, reflect our obli­ga­tions un­der in­ter­na­tional treaties. Our rights and free­doms arise from the proud tra­di­tion of the com­mon law – the his­tory of de­ci­sions made by judges through the cen­turies. In Triggs’ view, that tra­di­tion should bind both parliament and judges. Not so long ago the High Court would in­ter­pret the law with the as­sump­tion that parliament in­tended to com­ply with in­ter­na­tional obli­ga­tions. Now, Triggs says, judges tend to look nar­rowly only at statutes, which means that in the ab­sence of do­mes­tic laws re­flect­ing in­ter­na­tional obli­ga­tions there are few re­straints on gov­ern­ment power and few guar­an­tees that hu­man rights will be re­spected. It also puts us out of kil­ter with the de­vel­op­ment of the law in other coun­tries. For ex­am­ple, the Pa­pua New Guinea Supreme Court de­clared the Manus Is­land de­ten­tion cen­tre was un­con­sti­tu­tional be­cause it in­volved de­tain­ing peo­ple with­out trial. “So we have a new coun­try and a new con­sti­tu­tion that is more mod­ern than our own.” Triggs says that Aus­tralia is dis­turbingly tol­er­ant of breaches of hu­man rights. “There seems to be a pas­sive ac­cep­tance that if the gov­ern­ment wants [cer­tain] pow­ers it should have them.” She is in favour of a leg­is­lated char­ter of hu­man rights at the fed­eral level. There is no chance, she be­lieves, that the Con­sti­tu­tion could be changed to in­clude a bill of rights. It would be too po­lit­i­cally dif­fi­cult. Once again, it should be for fed­eral parliament to leg­is­late, such as has al­ready been done in Vic­to­ria where the Char­ter of Hu­man Rights and Re­spon­si­bil­i­ties Act re­quires the gov­ern­ment and its agen­cies to be­have in a man­ner con­sis­tent with 20 fun­da­men­tal hu­man rights set down in the statute. Black­let­ter law to reflect, as she puts it, the long tra­di­tion of the com­mon law. As AHRC pres­i­dent, what progress did Triggs make to­wards these aims? Very lit­tle, she says. She made mis­takes, cer­tainly, though in some cases only per­fect fore­sight could have led to dif­fer­ent de­ci­sions. Her ev­ery real and per­ceived flaw was pounced upon and mag­ni­fied in ways she had not an­tic­i­pated. She had ex­pected the politi­cians to un­der­stand the Con­sti­tu­tion, and the statute un­der which the AHRC did its work. Was that naive, or merely rea­son­able? Ei­ther way, she was dis­ap­pointed. Given her lack of spe­cial­ity in hu­man rights, Triggs was not an ob­vi­ous can­di­date for the AHRC pres­i­dency. She be­lieves that her nom­i­na­tion came be­cause of her broad skills in in­ter­na­tional and com­mer­cial law, and her rep­u­ta­tion for con­ser­vatism. Her pre­de­ces­sor, Catherine Bran­son, had just com­pleted a re­port on the in­tern­ment of peo­ple smug­glers who claimed to be chil­dren. Triggs says that the La­bor gov­ern­ment was look­ing for some­one who would take “a strictly mea­sured, le­gal ap­proach and not be a sort of pub­lic bleed­ing heart”. At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Nicola Roxon and her suc­ces­sor, Mark Drey­fus, were re­spect­ful of the AHRC’s in­de­pen­dence, she says. They might sug­gest ar­eas of in­quiry, such as el­der abuse or home­less­ness, but they did so “in the light­est of pos­si­ble ways”. Mean­while, Triggs and her staff were in reg­u­lar dis­cus­sion with min­is­ters for im­mi­gra­tion Chris Bowen and Tony Burke, who were “ac­ces­si­ble, cour­te­ous … [and] act­ing in a hu­mane way and mov­ing the chil­dren through the sys­tem. Not fast enough, of course, but they were mov­ing.”

As AHRC pres­i­dent, what progress did Triggs make to­wards these aims? Very lit­tle, she says.

Dut­ton would lis­ten to her with­out in­ter­rup­tion, then look at his watch and end the ap­point­ment.

So why, de­spite her cour­te­ous pro­fes­sional deal­ings, did she make the per­sonal de­ci­sion to vote for an Ab­bott gov­ern­ment? Triggs had been a swing­ing voter through­out her vot­ing life. As a young woman she was ex­cited by the Whit­lam gov­ern­ment, and com­fort­able with the Fraser gov­ern­ment that fol­lowed. Later, as wife to Aus­tralian diplo­mat Alan Brown, she met Paul Keat­ing. Triggs was im­pressed by his knowl­edge about clocks (her fam­ily were clock mak­ers) and the Napoleonic era, and sup­ported his pol­icy of work­ing more closely with Asia. What about John Howard’s ten­ure: the cul­ture wars, the Tampa con­tro­versy and the chil­dren over­board af­fair? As if to con­firm her lack of po­lit­i­cal aware­ness, Triggs says, “I missed a lot of it.” She was liv­ing over­seas with her hus­band and ab­sorbed in writ­ing a text­book, so her head was buried in the finer points of the law of the sea and treaties. In 2013 it seemed to her that La­bor, riven by the bat­tles be­tween Kevin Rudd and Ju­lia Gil­lard, was “not re­ally com­pe­tent to go for­ward”. Ab­bott, on the other hand, “had a strong sense of lead­er­ship … and he had cred­i­bil­ity and authen­tic­ity. He had what I now see as an overly sim­plis­tic ap­proach to is­sues, but nonethe­less he had a clear sense of di­rec­tion. I didn’t like his re­jec­tion of ev­i­dence in con­sid­er­a­tion of cli­mate change. But I did think that some of his ar­gu­ments about eco­nomic dy­namism were im­por­tant.” What she hadn’t re­alised, she said, is that the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment and the con­ser­va­tives in his cabi­net were “ide­o­log­i­cally op­posed to hu­man rights” and in­deed to the very ex­is­tence of the or­gan­i­sa­tion that she led. Her first in­di­ca­tion of trou­ble was in June 2014, when she pub­lished a re­port into the case of John Basik­basik, a refugee who had been con­victed of the bru­tal man­slaugh­ter of his de facto spouse. Hav­ing served his sen­tence, he was in­terned at the Villa­wood de­ten­tion cen­tre. This amounted to un­law­ful ar­bi­trary de­ten­tion, wrote Triggs. It was hardly a pop­u­lar cause. The gov­ern­ment’s re­ac­tion made her re­alise that “I wasn’t deal­ing with ra­tio­nal­ity. I was deal­ing with ide­ol­ogy. And no mat­ter how I ex­plained that some­body who’s com­pleted a crim­i­nal sen­tence is en­ti­tled to be re­leased un­less they are charged and pros­e­cuted with some­thing else, it made no dif­fer­ence … I re­alised that I was deal­ing not with some­body who had any un­der­stand­ing of the law but some­body who was go­ing to use a pop­ulist po­si­tion to at­tack the [AHRC] as a whole.” Ear­lier in 2014 Triggs launched an in­quiry into chil­dren in im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion. When the re­port was re­leased in Novem­ber that year, the at­tacks were stepped up – not so much over the con­tent but its tim­ing. The Ab­bott gov­ern­ment said it was a par­ti­san ex­er­cise: why had she not started the in­quiry un­der La­bor? To­day, Triggs says that had she re­alised how the tim­ing of her ac­tions would be used against her, she would have launched the in­quiry im­me­di­ately on tak­ing of­fice, fol­low­ing on from the re­port just com­pleted by her pre­de­ces­sor. But that’s the ben­e­fit of hind­sight. Triggs’ tim­ing was also com­pli­cated by the fact that Prime Min­is­ter Gil­lard had an­nounced in Jan­uary 2013 that the elec­tion would be held in Septem­ber – mean­ing that for months the coun­try was ef­fec­tively in elec­tion mode. Triggs thought launch­ing an in­quiry in that pe­riod would have been seen as an in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­toral process. Af­ter the elec­tion, she dis­cussed with her fel­low AHRC com­mis­sion­ers the prospect of mount­ing an im­me­di­ate in­quiry, but the feel­ing was that the new gov­ern­ment should be given a chance to con­tinue the process of low­er­ing the num­bers of chil­dren in de­ten­tion. There were about 1100 in de­ten­tion when the Coali­tion took of­fice, Triggs says. Four or five months later, the num­bers hadn’t de­creased con­sid­er­ably and in the mean­time dis­cus­sions with the gov­ern­ment were not go­ing well. Im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son was not so bad. He would at least talk to her, en­gag­ing to the ex­tent of hav­ing “a bit of to­ing and fro­ing. He would counter what I’d say and I’d come back … He was Te­flon. I don’t think I had any im­pact on him, but at least there was en­gage­ment.” When Peter Dut­ton re­placed Mor­ri­son in late 2014, af­ter the re­lease of the AHRC re­port, even the en­gage­ment stopped. Dut­ton would lis­ten to her with­out in­ter­rup­tion, then look at his watch and end the ap­point­ment. “Now what is dis­tress­ing, of course, was that I should be ac­cused of po­lit­i­cal bias … es­pe­cially hav­ing voted for the gov­ern­ment, which is highly ironic.”

The prob­lem be­ing that her an­tag­o­nists made it al­most a point of pride that they did not read her re­port. In pri­vate and in pub­lic, she was treated with con­tempt. From then on it was a pitched bat­tle, with Triggs the gov­ern­ment’s favourite ob­ject of at­tack. There were numer­ous oc­ca­sions over the next few years when pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Triggs and se­nior min­is­ters were leaked to the Aus­tralian, even to the level of par­tic­u­lar phrases she had used. Com­mis­sion doc­u­ments that should have been kept con­fi­den­tial also ended up with the Aus­tralian. Triggs knew its ed­i­tor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell. She had lunched with him as dean of the law school, and thought him “quite well in­formed, cour­te­ous, and I thought he would at least have an open mind. Of course, he and his mind just com­pletely closed.” She was re­lieved when Mal­colm Turn­bull re­placed Ab­bott in Septem­ber 2015. Turn­bull and his wife, Lucy, had been gen­er­ous bene­fac­tors to the Syd­ney Law School and had taken a keen in­ter­est in its work. “I had rea­son to ex­pect that they were lib­er­als in the best sense of the word and I breathed a sigh of re­lief … I thought, Well, we’re mov­ing away from those ide­o­log­i­cal Ab­bott years and we’re now mov­ing into calmer wa­ters where they may not agree with what I’m ar­gu­ing for but they are more likely to treat it with re­spect.” Mean­while, the vi­tu­per­a­tion against her rolled into the de­bate about sec­tion 18C of the Racial Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act, and her han­dling of rel­e­vant in­quiries. To­day, Triggs says she is in favour of chang­ing the law. The Fed­eral Court, she says, had been “ut­terly con­sis­tent” in mak­ing it clear that only very se­ri­ous abuse and vil­i­fi­ca­tion would breach 18C. “I think that ra­tio­nal be­ings could have sat down and amended the words of 18C to reflect the ju­rispru­dence of the Fed­eral Court, which would have been an im­pec­ca­ble thing to do.” The po­lit­i­cal cli­mate made such ra­tio­nal dis­cus­sions im­pos­si­ble. She had a cup of tea with Turn­bull in his first weeks as prime min­is­ter and “a very con­ge­nial con­ver­sa­tion”. But within weeks Turn­bull had de­clared “dis­cour­te­ously, at a min­i­mum” that Triggs would not be reap­pointed, even though she’d al­ready made it clear to the at­tor­ney-gen­eral that she had no in­ten­tion of go­ing be­yond her five-year term. “I knew with this gov­ern­ment I couldn’t achieve any­thing … and car­ry­ing on was ul­ti­mately detri­men­tal to the com­mis­sion.”

Gil­lian Triggs had, by her own ad­mis­sion, made mis­takes, par­tic­u­larly in the the­atri­cal com­bat of Se­nate Es­ti­mates com­mit­tees. Her ap­proach could be de­scribed as ide­al­is­tic – or naive. “I be­lieved in the demo­cratic process and … was fully re­spect­ing [the Se­nate Es­ti­mates com­mit­tee] and giv­ing them full an­swers. The dif­fi­culty with that is that, in­evitably, you don’t know the ques­tions and you have to wing it a bit with the an­swers. Then you’ve got no le­gal ad­viser there to tell you when to stop or to cor­rect you. And it’s the­atre. And it’s very, very dan­ger­ous and on a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions it was dan­ger­ous for me.” In April 2016, Triggs gave an ex­tra­or­di­nary in­ter­view to jour­nal­ist Ra­mona Ko­val, which was pub­lished in the Satur­day Pa­per. Triggs was in­cau­tious in her re­marks. She said par­lia­men­tar­i­ans were “se­ri­ously illinformed and un­e­d­u­cated”, and that in an ear­lier, nine­hour Se­nate Es­ti­mates hear­ing she could have “re­sponded and de­stroyed them – I could have said, ‘You’ve asked me a ques­tion that demon­strated you have not read our statute. How dare you ques­tion what I do?’” In­evitably, at the next Se­nate Es­ti­mates hear­ing her an­tag­o­nists had a copy of the in­ter­view and quizzed her on it. Un­der pres­sure, she claimed to have been mis­quoted – a se­ri­ous slur on Ko­val’s pro­fes­sional rep­u­ta­tion. Triggs re­tracted when the Satur­day Pa­per made it clear there was an au­dio record­ing of the ex­change. That, in turn, al­lowed the chair of the com­mit­tee, Ian Mac­don­ald, to sug­gest she had de­lib­er­ately mis­led the Se­nate. To­day, Triggs says she was con­fused and re­fer­ring to the head­line on the ar­ti­cle, which she be­lieved was mis­lead­ing and un­fair, rather than the text. But she is still less than clear about how she ended up in such trou­ble. She claims she hadn’t re­alised the nature of the in­ter­view. “It is my view that the in­ter­view was con­ducted on the

She said par­lia­men­tar­i­ans were “se­ri­ously illinformed and un­e­d­u­cated”, and that in an ear­lier, nine-hour Se­nate Es­ti­mates hear­ing she could have “re­sponded and de­stroyed them”.

ba­sis that it was a back­ground piece on the Se­nate Es­ti­mates pro­cesses. I had no idea it was go­ing to be a ques­tion-and-an­swer and absolutely lit­eral and taken in the way that it was. But that was my mis­take. I should never have agreed to that in­ter­view.” When asked about this, Ko­val showed the Monthly a copy of the email she sent to Triggs set­ting up the in­ter­view. Ko­val had been clear about the for­mat. It was no am­bush. Per­haps the bet­ter ex­pla­na­tion of Triggs’ in­cau­tion lies in her own de­scrip­tion – in a dif­fer­ent con­text – of how she re­sponds to pres­sure. “I rarely sit around feel­ing sorry for my­self and I never go into de­pres­sion … I never have in my life. I’m al­ways ac­tive … And if I am re­ally up­set about some­thing I’ll move and do some­thing. Yes, I move very quickly. I’m on the phone and I’m march­ing into peo­ple’s of­fices.” It is a crash-or-crash-through ap­proach, or else, as she puts it, she moves around some­thing. In the case of the Ko­val in­ter­view she was, as she told the sen­a­tors later, “very frus­trated” by the sen­a­tors’ re­fusal to read her re­ports. Given her time again, Triggs says she would for­get the demo­cratic ideals and do what pub­lic ser­vants do: take most of the ques­tions from Se­nate Es­ti­mates on no­tice. Never in five years, she says, was a ques­tion taken on no­tice men­tioned again or fol­lowed up. “They are not in­ter­ested in the an­swer. They’re only in­ter­ested in the the­atri­cal­ity of it and they’re only in­ter­ested in pro­mot­ing them­selves.” She might have been more cau­tious, she ad­mits – launched the in­quiry straight away, been more self-pro­tec­tive at Se­nate Es­ti­mates – but her ap­proach to the sub­stan­tive is­sues was in­evitable. The AHRC is not about her. It is like a ma­chine, she says, rolling on in ac­cor­dance with its statute and the facts. She ac­knowl­edges, though, that the AHRC has now be­come so politi­cised it is dif­fi­cult for it to do its job. It has also had its bud­get re­peat­edly cut. She does not crit­i­cise her suc­ces­sor, Ros­alind Croucher, but ob­serves that to­day’s com­mis­sion is “very quiet”. The only com­mis­sioner who is still in the me­dia is the La­bor ap­pointee, race dis­crim­i­na­tion com­mis­sioner Tim Sout­phom­masane. “Un­for­tu­nately, this gov­ern­ment sees any­body ap­pointed by the La­bor gov­ern­ment as anath­ema.” De­spite it all, Triggs says she does not re­gret tak­ing on the job. She has now had four months to re­cover and reflect on what she de­scribes as the most dif­fi­cult time of her pro­fes­sional life. She en­joyed the pub­lic-fac­ing as­pects of the job (Se­nate Es­ti­mates aside), ad­dress­ing au­di­ences across the coun­try on hu­man rights, and col­lab­o­rat­ing with col­leagues in­ter­na­tion­ally. The job broad­ened her, she says, in a way that academia could not. She gar­nered a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion of how lit­tle the work she had de­voted most of her life to – aca­demic re­search – mat­ters in the pub­lic realm. Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans need bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion. Aca­demics need to get bet­ter at putting their re­search into plain lan­guage, and re­search­ing top­ics that mat­ter. She thinks gov­ern­ment “could rightly de­mand” that uni­ver­si­ties do more rel­e­vant re­search, and work harder at com­mu­ni­cat­ing the re­sults to a gen­eral au­di­ence. As for her­self, she hopes to use her new in­sights to write a book that will both sell and ad­vance the cause that orig­i­nally led to her tak­ing the job – re­flect­ing in­ter­na­tional obli­ga­tions in do­mes­tic laws. It will not be a “kiss-and-tell gos­sipy book”, she says. “I don’t want it to be about me. I want it to be about the key chal­lenges for Aus­tralia in com­ply­ing with its hu­man rights obli­ga­tions.” Is she per­son­ally scarred by what she has been through? At first, she de­nies it, say­ing she in­her­ited from her fa­ther a tough­ness that al­lows her to sleep soundly even when things are at their worst. The at­tacks, she says, never got un­der her skin. And yet, as she stands at her front door, she ad­mits that part of the re­ward of com­ing home has been to re­con­nect with her roots in the wake of what was “per­haps, in a way, a trau­ma­tis­ing ex­pe­ri­ence”. In the end, she knows she did her best, act­ing in ac­cor­dance with her prin­ci­ples and her train­ing. “I think I had the re­spect of the pro­fes­sion and of many in the pub­lic arena. Friends and fam­ily … that’s very com­fort­ing, to know that you’ve got so many peo­ple who un­der­stand what you were try­ing to do, even though some­body wiser than me might have gone about it dif­fer­ently.”

She ac­knowl­edges, though, that the AHRC has now be­come so politi­cised it is dif­fi­cult for it to do its job. It has also had its bud­get re­peat­edly cut.

© Louise Ken­ner­ley / Fair­fax

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