CIGJ Director, Hilary Charlesworth joined other senior legal academics this week to express support for Gillian Triggs, who has been subjected recently to what they describe as ‘relentless attacks’, including from the Prime Minister. The attacks relate to a decision made by the Human Rights Commission in the case of Mr Basikbasik, who has been held in immigration detention for seven years, after serving a six-year prison term for a criminal conviction. The Commission recommended that a less punitive form of community detention be found for Mr Basikbasik, and that he be compensated for his lengthy period in immigration detention. In the Commission’s view, the government had not established that Mr Basikbasik’s detention following the completion of his sentence was necessary. Given this, the detention could be characterised as arbitrary and as a breach of national and international standards. In a letter to The Australian that was not published (but which has since been published by New Matilda and The Conversation), Hilary and her colleagues argue that the attacks on Gillian Triggs are ‘based on a misunderstanding of the role of the [Human Rights] Commission.’ They point out that
Independent public office holders are an important part of modern democratic societies. Their task is to ensure accountability for abuses of power by government. Their capacity to perform this role depends on their independence and ability to act impartially.
Independence and impartiality are undermined when a political leader attacks holders of public office and when the media presents inaccurate accounts of the work of public institutions.
The Australian Bar Association echoed these concerns, issuing a media release arguing that it ‘is one thing for a government to debate the decision of any court, tribunal or commission, but quite another to attack the institution itself’. The ABA points out that the media and political focus on Mr Basikbasik’s character implies that the law applies differently depending upon the person who comes before it. Clearly any such implication is concerning for a country that claims to be ‘governed by and [to] respect the rule of law’.