When president of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) Gillian Triggs presented her damning report into children in immigration detention to Attorney-General George Brandis last year, few expected the government to be pleased about it.

The tension between Triggs and the Coalition was clear in February last year, when then-immigration minister Scott Morrison barred Triggs from visiting child asylum seekers held in Nauru. Triggs also complained the government was less than forthcoming with information on issues like self-harm among detainees. In August, the two again butted heads, this time during a heated Senate estimates hearing during which Triggs compared the facilities on Christmas Island to a prison. She also repeatedly called on Morrison to prove a link between holding children in detention for long periods and a drop in boat numbers. And, of course, the Coalition’s response to the report was always going to be predictable: mandatory detention works, the boats have stopped, and most of the children in detention arrived under Labor anyway.

The Coalition’s response to the Forgotten Children report was first tested over a decade ago, when the AHRC tabled a similar report into children in detention. Titled A Last Resort?, the report was heavily critical of the Howard government’s mandatory detention policies and demanded children — and their parents — be released into the community. Australian immigration policy, the report claimed, was fundamentally inconsistent with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. Then-immigration minister Amanda Vanstone dismissed the report, calling it “part of history”, but then quietly began releasing children from detention. The author of the 2004 report, Zev Ozdowski, would later praise the Howard government for its actions in regards to children in detention and even call on the Gillard government to follow its lead.

Whether the Abbott government will follow the established play in relation to the Forgotten Children report — appear tough on border security by standing by harsh policies, show empathy cautiously and only on the sly — remains to be seen. But what is already apparent is the way the government has gone after Triggs, even causing some to argue it has more to do with her gender than her credentials.

While this episode does appear to be more personal, The Forgotten Children is certainly not the first major statutory report to cause a political fracas and invigorate the culture wars. Bringing Them Home, the 1997 national inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander children from their parents, is perhaps the most significant — and politically divisive — antecedent. Like Triggs’ report, Bringing Them Home was released early in a freshly elected conservative government’s term, and was roundly rejected by it. Howard was bitterly opposed to what he called a “black armband view of history”, and the then-PM refused to issue an official apology to those families torn apart by child removal policies. The environment was such that, in 2000, Howard’s Aboriginal affairs minister, John Herron, even tabled a submission to a Senate committee denying the existence of the stolen generation. While Howard did admit that “large numbers of children were taken in circumstances where they shouldn’t have been”, he considered the term “generation” a misnomer.

Bringing Them Home sparked a culture war that raged for over a decade, culminating with Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generation in 2008. The most Howard would offer was a parliamentary motion of reconciliation in 1999, which used the phrase “deep and sincere regret” at the injustices toward indigenous Australians, but carefully avoided the word sorry. According to Poll Dancing, Mungo MacCallum’s book on the 2007 election, Howard also authorised a smear campaign against Ronald Wilson, then-president of the AHRC and chief author of the report. As anyone who has watched a legal procedural drama on telly understands, discrediting the witness through ad hominem attacks is the first tactic used by the defence. In Australia, we have a term for this: it’s called playing the man and not the ball, and it’s considered, both in sport and politics, cowardly and cheap. But why do conservatives go so hard at neutral institutions like the AHRC?

The answer is that they are not considered neutral at all but, like the ABC, biased left-wing strongholds naturally hostile to conservative governments — hence the Coalition obsession with appointing fellow conservatives to important positions within them. It was no surprise Howard appointed Ron Brunton, a senior fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and strong critic of Bringing Them Home, as director of the ABC in 2003. Keith Windschuttle, author of works including the three-part series The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, followed as a board member in 2006. Seen in this light, the recent appointment of IPA regular Tim Wilson as Human Rights Commissioner is par for the conservative course — an opportunity to square the ledger and shore up support from institutions deemed antagonistic. The current Coalition government, like Howard’s, questioned why the AHRC didn’t commission reports into mandatory detention during Labor terms because Coalition MPs believe that, like the ABC, the AHRC is fundamentally out to get them.

Howard, however, knew an opportunity when he saw one. The Little Children are Sacred report, commissioned by the Northern Territory government and released before the 2007 election, detailed widespread child sexual abuse among indigenous communities. Mal Brough, Howard’s indigenous affairs minister, pushed the NT government to begin an inquiry and would also be the chief architect of the Northern Territory intervention that followed. The government moved swiftly, ignoring the majority of the report’s recommendations to institute just two of the report’s 97 recommendations. It also gave Howard a chance to crack down on welfare recipients and try out things like income quarantine, which would have been politically toxic had they been aimed at the broader community.

Whether Abbott and his government will continue to dismiss Triggs and her report as “partisan” or whether they will take any action — and what form that action might take — remains to be seen.

Peter Fray

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