Gillian Triggs has made a rallying call for the freedoms we take for granted to be safeguarded during her Friday (November 2) night lecture in Bega.
With the doors of the Bega High School theatre wide open to catch any passing zephyr, Triggs started a conversation just as hot as the day had been.
As President of the Australian Human Rights Commission between 2012 and 2017, Triggs was often in conflict with the government of the day around asylum seeker policy in particular.
With speculation mounting that all children currently in offshore immigration detention will be processed by Christmas, the visit by Ms Triggs was incredibly timely and put Bega on the frontline of this national debate.
“There appears to be evidence coming from Canberra that we will have all the children off Naru with their families by Christmas,” she says.
“Now when I first heard that news my immediate and rather cynical first response was – they said that several years ago and it wasn’t true.
“This time I think it probably is true.”
Ms Triggs urged her audience of around 150 people to maintain pressure on the issue until the truth of the government’s position is clearer.
“I think [this] reflects a number of important elements, one of them is what I believe is a shift at the community level,” Ms Triggs says.
“Regardless of political views, I’ve found that in Australians all over the country there is a sense that to keep children, young men, and their families on Manus and Naru for five and a half years without charge or trial is grossly contrary to our most fundamental principles.”
With a new book on sale in the foyer, Triggs took the discussion further suggesting a Bill or Charter of Rights would better protect the rights of citizens, minorities, and non-citizens and “ensure a culture of respect for the rights that underpin our democracy”.
The former Director of the British Institute for International and Comparative Law in London and Dean of Law at the University of Sydney believes the absence of a Bill of Rights has enabled successive governments to sidestep the rights and freedoms of asylum seekers and increasingly, the broader population.
Triggs says the freedoms that Australians have taken for granted and assume are part of our law are not and in recent years these laws have been eroded by some politicians and the media, with an “unprecedented, creeping expansion of executive powers and of Ministerial discretion”.
“We are the only democracy in the world that does not have a Charter or Bill of Rights.”
You might ask, “Doesn’t the Constitution do that for us?”
“The answer is that it does not,” she says.
“The Constitution is a functional document on the relations between the Commonwealth and the States – it was the deal done to make Australia in 1901.
“There are almost no protections for our fundamental rights.
“We have a right to the freedom of religion in the Constitution, but our Constitution does not protect our freedom of expression, there is no right to protest, no right to freedom of association, no right to privacy, and no prohibition on arbitrary detention without charge or trial.”
It’s Ms Triggs view that progressive High Court Judges and a civil society largely uphold these principles.
“We could do this [Bill of Rights] in a very simple document,” she says.
“The Electoral Commision did a survey a few years ago and asked 3,000 Australians – Do we have a Constitution?”
“Forty-eight per cent said ‘no’. Then they asked a second question – Do we have a Bill of Rights?
“And 65 per cent of Australian’s said ‘yes’.
“We know more about our rights from American television, wouldn’t it be nice if we educated our children and if we understood that the strength of our democratic system in Australia lies with those fundamental freedoms?
“But ultimately the strength of our democracy lies with the community and with citizenship,” Ms Triggs says.
“In a time when our governments are not meeting the values upon which Australia has been founded then it is time for civil society to take back the power that as citizens we have.”
Learn more, click play to hear Gillian Triggs full speech on Friday night in Bega…
Gillian Triggs came to Bega as a guest of the Social Justice Advocates of the Sapphire Coast.