There is doubtless an interesting book in Gillian Triggs’ life before she became the head of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) — her first 65 years on the planet, living in various countries, juggling her burgeoning law career with four children, one of whom was profoundly disabled and died.

There is definitely a very interesting book in her personal, day-to-day experiences during her five years as head of the AHRC — a role she spent being harried and vilified by the government and large sections of the media, and an experience that, in her own words, “radicalised” the conservative lawyer.

Speaking Up, the “memoir” published by MUP this month, is neither of those books. The former period receives 13 pages and the latter 15.

Instead, it’s a wonkish, assiduously researched deconstruction of how Australia came to violate so many of the international statutes it helped strike, and a call to arms on how that might be changed — her fundamental call being for a charter of rights. The book is divided into subsections like “Distance and difference: how Australia shirks its international obligations”, which, piece by piece, deconstructs the legislative, practical and systemic issues that got us where we are.

In this way, it appears to aspire more to be reference text than a memoir. On that front, the book succeeds, acting as a solid primer for anyone interested in the theory and practice of human rights law in Australia, peppered with asides from Triggs’ time as commissioner.  

While she mentions the obstructions she faced, the only time the personal and professional observations truly meld is the chapter “Tours of Duty” in which she often movingly details her trips to Australian immigration detention centres to monitor the conditions faced by those incarcerated around the country, particularly in forgotten and out-of-the-way locations like Yongah Hills.

“This, of course, is the point,” she observes. It is here she’s able to talk about the human reality of a system with an inbuilt tendency to perversity and spite. See the quietly heartbreaking story of a New Zealand woman, badly needing medication for a foot ailment, who had been placed in a detention centre so far from her Australian-based family that they could scarcely ever visit, for seemingly no reason other than to make her life a little more miserable. While Triggs concedes she has no way of knowing if what the woman told her is true, there are plenty of reasons to find it credible. 

But mostly when dealing with her own reactions — to this media storm, or that Senate estimates grilling — it’s only in passing, in aid of the wider point. For example, when the chapter discussing 18C and freedom of speech inevitably deals with the Bill Leak saga, his death is awarded no adjective beyond “unexpected”, and the resultant abuse hurled at the commission in general and her in particular is dealt with in a couple of sentences, briskly restating the commission’s independence and statutory role in dealing with complaints brought before it. Honestly, it really is that dry.  

Outside the first 30 pages, she seems intractably committed to keeping the focus off herself. Of course, this is admirable, and speaks to the kind of public figure she was: compassionate but stoic, unbowed in the face of whatever was thrown at her.

But it’s not just the incurable gossip in me that wishes she’d been a bit more personal (both with regards to herself and in response to those who attacked her), that she’d revealed something we didn’t know, rather than “setting the record” straight by restating facts that are already on the public record. As Geoffrey Robertson puts in his blurb, Triggs “refutes her detractors with reason not rancour”. But the attempt by government and a lapdog element of the media to bully a public servant into silence for doing their job is every bit as immediate a threat to democracy and human rights as gaps in the constitution. 

Triggs’ approach in Speaking Up is admirable, illuminating and useful, but it leaves the book a touch bloodless, when one wishes it had been more willing to go for the throat.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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