You wouldn’t be Gillian Triggs today for quids and a lifetime of free bus travel, would you? The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission has been making headlines for months now, due in large and inevitable part to the fact of her doing her job. The thing that really landed her in the poo was a thing she was employed to do. The release of her report on children in detention, one critical of ALP policy, was irrationally seen as pro-ALP. It was also irrationally seen as the sort of work that the HRC just shouldn’t do. Which was peculiar. Not so long ago, one of her predecessors delivered a similar report on kids, which you’d presume to be the world’s most apolitical population, and this was not perceived as dangerous. But Triggs is seen as dangerously political.

Just how Triggs has come to be seen as “left” or in any way partisan is, in one sense, astounding. She helms a liberal institution that does what liberal institutions have long done. For centuries in Western democracies, we’ve agreed that our societies are imperfect and that laws must be made and upheld to address such imperfection. Human Rights, in particular, have been seen as inviolable; the right to rights is above mere politics, as Philip Ruddock’s commitment to this liberal belief made plain.

In another sense, Triggs’ disgrace should not be as surprising to us as it is to many of her supporters. The belief in liberal safeguards is starting to crack.

There are a few other reasons that Triggs in particular has copped it. Some have suggested that there’s an element of sexism at play, and this is partially true. Australians aren’t overly fond of lady bosses.

[Pull the Triggs: conservatives petition against Human Rights Commissioner]

Many, notably within News Corp, have said that her organisation has at times unproductively pursued unproductive ends. This is also true. Whatever your view of the QUT case, you can perhaps agree that the arduous way in which it was processed eclipsed all potential for public good. Even among those opposed or subject to racist aggression, there may be some irritated by the length of time a university computer lab became a site for conflict.

Then, there’s the matter of Triggs’ refusal to speak accessibly. Many have observed that she’s awful at it, and they’re not wrong. Notwithstanding the frustrating standards to which women in public life are held — a whisper can still be perceived as “shrill” — she is a terrible advocate for herself. She has, apparently, no notion how to talk to media, and this is part of the gig. Even when communicating with those outlets best placed to give her an objective hearing, she screws it up. No one at The Saturday Paper compelled her to say haughty things about the ignorance of politicians, and no one, in my view, at that publication elevated these comments with malice, clumsiness or unconcern. Even so, she claimed she wasn’t given impartial review by a team that has offered her nothing else.

Triggs’ relationship with local press who wish to give her fair account is not unlike that we saw with Clinton and US outlets. This famous profile in Vox of Clinton is written in service to the idea of the “real” Hillary. The author is at pains to point out that Clinton, another genuinely awful communicator, is much better than she appears to us. If only we saw behind her impatience and her refusal to outline her policy goals in a coherent way! If only we understood that beneath all the refusal to explain what she believes, she believes something good! The Saturday Paper piece on Triggs was in no way this uncritical or propagandist, but there was a similar urge to interpret for readers the good the public figure herself could not articulate.

Vox couldn’t translate for Hillary any more than Australian press can for Triggs. And this is not just down to either person’s gender or steadfast failure to speak the language of the people. In both cases, we can blame, in good part, the era.

People, including ignorant politicians, know there’s something wrong. In recent years, a mistrust of establishments of all kinds has grown to critical levels. That people are turning on institutions that do a little work that is good rather than those that do a lot of work that is monumentally shithouse is, of course, frustrating. But social organisation appears to most of us as inscrutable, and so we turn to its fairly blameless institutions, or its entirely blameless peoples, for an answer.

[Gleeson, like Triggs, has a quality Brandis simply can’t stomach: independence]

We blame the poor and the brown for a time that is, in the experience of many, insecure. We then blame the institutions whose business it is to safeguard what remains of their rights. This is, of course, wrong. But it’s not like it hasn’t happened before.

People are right to blame large institutions for their pain. They just happen to be blaming the least culpable. While it is true that the HRC can arse about doing stuff that seems unimportant to most, it is also true that this is the nature of organisations. Whether an organisation is dealing in the manufacture and distribution of smartphones or upholding anti-discrimination legislation, there will be some stuffing about. That we are unable to see that Apple’s elaborate “double Irish with a Dutch sandwich” method of tax avoidance is a stuff about of much greater consequence than a few months in consultation with students at QUT is our contemporary tragedy.

It is, of course, a laugh that the politicians who would censure Triggs are currently able to posit themselves as anti-establishment. Triggs is not the cause of the era’s great unease with “establishment” figures. She’s just a victim of it.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey