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Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for October is Speaking Up by Gillian Triggs (Melbourne University Press), a passionate memoir and an irresistible call to everyone who yearns for a fairer world.

As president of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs advocated for the disempowered, the disenfranchised, the marginalised. Speaking Up shares with readers the values that have guided Triggs’ convictions and the causes she has championed. She dares women to be a little vulgar and men to move beyond their comfort zones to achieve equity for all. And she will not rest until Australia has a Bill of Rights. The following is an edited extract from chapter 1.

Gillian Triggs speaking at an International Women’s Day event. Image courtesy of MUP

I never wanted to enter the rough-and-tumble of public or political life, and for forty-five years as a lawyer, I managed to avoid it. Human rights advocacy is not for the faint-hearted. How, then, did I come into conflict with the government of the day on human rights issues, most particularly the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees?

On the day I first walked through the doors of the Australian Human Rights Commission headquarters in central Sydney, I was a ‘black letter’ international lawyer having worked with a commercial law firm and been dean of a law school. My work until then largely concerned disputed claims to territorial and maritime sovereignty, such as in the South China Sea and the Timor Gap; the World Trade Organization; and sovereign immunities. I had lectured in international law, written textbooks, and led an international research institute. I was not looking for controversy. It found me.

I was not the first commission president to incur the condemnation of government. Fifteen years before I joined the commission in mid-2012, one of my predecessors, Sir Ronald Wilson, reported on what became known as the Stolen Generations. His legal conclusion – radical at the time – that the treatment of Indigenous mixed-race children amounted to the international crime of genocide, attracted much political derision. Today, his report is the commission’s most referenced and admired work. While I do not compare myself with so fine a judge as Sir Ronald, I do share with him the experience, when faced with the facts and personal stories, of producing a report that is also seen by some to be ‘radical’.

Since ending my five-year presidency, I have had several months to reflect upon my time at the Australian Human Rights Commission. The role was a signal honour and a highlight of my career partly because it is both a national and international one. I had the opportunity to visit many parts of Australia: from an aged-care home for Indigenous stockmen that was three hours’ drive from Katherine, to Pontville, 28 kilometres north of Hobart, where asylum-seeker children were detained, to Batemans Bay shopkeepers on a walkabout for human rights. It was an honour to be invited to speak to refugee support groups in the country, from the Blue Mountains to Berry, Bendigo, Ballarat and Mansfield; to speak to city-based religious and charitable organisations; to university students and political institutions.

Initially, I doubted the point of travelling interstate to give a twenty-minute address in a small country town. It was so on the Saturday morning when I flew from Sydney to Melbourne, hired a car, and drove to an old goldmining town to take part in a refugee support meeting. It was freezing and the town was apparently deserted. I parked the car and then walked to the church hall with a sinking heart, only to be astounded to see at least 200 people assembled and eager to talk. I was greeted with country hospitality: a steaming mug of tea and a currant bun. The community debate was spirited, well informed and uplifting. This was just one of hundreds of such events I have attended, along with colleagues like Victorian barrister Julian Burnside QC, among so many others, especially from the legal and medical professions.

Despite the stereotype of conservative country politics, I was encouraged to learn that so many rural Australians take a humanitarian approach to the plight of refugees.

Despite the stereotype of conservative country politics, I was encouraged to learn that so many rural Australians take a humanitarian approach to the plight of refugees seeking protection. Cathy McGowan, who has served as the independent representative of the sprawling electorate of Indi since 2013, exemplifies the humanity of her rural voters. In 2017, as government numbers fell to a precarious low, she pledged her support for the government in the possible event that it might not have the numbers to ensure supply. But she insisted on a humane solution to the illegal, more than five-year detention of 800 men on Manus Island. I am now a patron of Rural Australians for Refugees and support their plea to allow refugees to settle in rural areas where they will be welcomed and supported by the community. Perhaps I should not be surprised by the humanity of those living in country towns: every day they pass the war memorials erected to the memory of the lives given in support of the democratic values of liberty and respect.

In my former role as president and now, I have had the opportunity to speak to many audiences about the protection of human rights in Australia. After sticking to my carefully crafted script, there is typically a Q&A to follow. That is when I am most vulnerable to going ‘off piste’ with some throwaway lines, almost always to be regretted at my leisure, or worse, forming a headline the next day. In 2017, at the Hobart Town Hall, invited by the Bob Brown Foundation, I gave a speech on proposals to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. When pointing out that the prohibition on race hate speech applies only in public, I added, ‘Sadly, you can say what you like around the kitchen table.’ News Corp interpreted this to mean that I wanted to ban all private conversations. The lesson? Do not ad lib. The misreporting of the purposes of that speech by the Daily Telegraph was found in March 2018 by the Australian Press Council to have breached four of its principles of fair and reasonable reporting.

The discomfort of media attention is also bound to affect family and friends. I was amused when my son James rang me one day from Paris, where he works, to ask: ‘What have you done this time?’

‘Nothing out of the ordinary,’ I said.

‘You’re out-trending Taylor Swift on Twitter.’

I have forgotten what provoked that particular Twitterstorm, but with respect to Ms Swift, my song is a simple one. We must work harder to protect the rights and freedoms of all Australians. It is time to legislate for a charter of rights to give parliament, civil society and the judiciary the legal tools to meet our human rights obligations.

Australia is the only democratic nation in the world, and the only common law country, that does not have a bill or charter of rights to ensure the freedoms of its citizens and residents. Australia is also the only Commonwealth country not to have a treaty with its Indigenous peoples despite its acceptance of the right to self-determination under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

During my commission presidency, I saw human rights in Australia regress on almost every issue of contemporary importance.

During my commission presidency, I saw human rights in Australia regress on almost every issue of contemporary importance, reflecting a decline in respect for the rule of law and contempt for many fundamental freedoms. Now, in this book, I offer a personal perspective on the critical human rights challenges for Australia, including women’s economic empowerment and domestic violence; constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians; cultural and racial diversity in employment and political life; and regional cooperation in providing protection to refugees.

Through the eyes of the commission, I have had the privilege of seeing up close how Australia has failed to respond to the discriminatory incarceration of Indigenous people, asylum seekers asking for sanctuary, rising racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism, youth suicides, and the declining economic position of women. I aim to encourage others to speak up for vulnerable Australians whose freedoms and rights are not respected.

Over the past five years, I have often wished I were somewhere else. But humour usually took the sting out of government criticism and media hyperbole. I now have dozens of newspaper cartoons to explain to my grandchildren. They range from a portrait of me as a Nazi, apparently provoked by my defence of sections 18C and D of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act, to my favourite, a James Bond–inspired cartoon. The latter depicts me dangling by a hook above a shark-infested pool, as prime minister Tony Abbott circles in the form of a submarine and attorney-general George Brandis watches while stroking a cat. It is clear I hope to escape up a rope to the sky above. The caption runs ‘Triggs, Gillian Triggs’. I do wish life were more like the movies.

Over the past five years, I have often wished I were somewhere else. But humour usually took the sting out of government criticism and media hyperbole.

Some cartoons have been inspired by singularly inappropriate comments by me. In one media interview, I needlessly mentioned that I am frequently approached by people in the supermarket, on trains and in the street who say they support the work of the commission. People, I said, often came up to me as I ate my noodles for lunch in Pitt Street. The resulting cartoon shows me festooned with noodles and chopsticks. Most such satire is clever and amusing, albeit drawing some blood. Some cartoons, by contrast, endorse stereotypes that are harmful in promoting racial and sexual discrimination, ‘permitting’ others to abuse and denigrate. A challenge for democracy is to find the right line between freedom of speech and an abuse of that right.

As a 72-year-old, I am delighted, if bemused, to be a patron of Grandmothers against Detention of Refugee Children. I qualify as a member as I am a grandmother of two: Sia and Leonard. Oscar Wilde once said that a woman who will tell you her age will tell you anything. I will not tell all, but I will tell what is useful, as truthfully as I can. I hope my book stimulates those concerned to maintain democratic liberties, to join me in speaking up.

Speaking Up is available now at Readings.