Annabel Crabb: We all missed something important Gillian Triggs had to say.

Through its attack on Gillian Triggs, the Federal Government has allowed Labor to avoid scrutiny for its own role in allowing children to suffer in detention, writes Annabel Crabb.

Of all the weird developments in the past week – and this is a period, keep in mind, during which Foreign Minister Julie Bishop conducted an interview communicating only in emoji – surely the strangest is this: the Australian Labor Party now fancies itself to be on the moral high ground, refugee policy-wise.

The airwaves were full this morning of Labor figures denouncing the Government’s treatment of Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs.

“Gillian Triggs has been taking all the punches for Labor.”


The Australian Federal Police, no less, has been invited by the Opposition to examine the circumstances under which the secretary of the Attorney General’s department, Chris Moraitis, came to wander past Professor Triggs’ office to let her know that the Attorney General had lost confidence in her impartiality, and would be open to her spending a little more time with her family, or at any rate in another part of the organisation (accounts differ as to the exact terms of this interaction, but it seems roughly agreed that Professor Triggs was in some way encouraged to pop her clogs).

Related: Explain to me: Who is Gillian Triggs and what has she done?

This is the bipartisan miracle of the Government’s extraordinary attack on Professor Triggs: It’s given 95 per cent of the elected population of Parliament House something else to talk about besides children in detention.


Seriously, it’s hard to imagine that there is a person remaining in Australia who gives an actual toss about this stuff who has not at some point felt like stabbing themselves with a rusty fork to see the ugly and apparently endless permutations this policy area can inspire in our elected representatives.

Annabel Crabb.


Labor, in Government, opened the floodgates and then spent panicked months brainstorming increasingly unpleasant things to do to the hordes of desperate chancers who – not unreasonably – took up the earlier-proffered option of being treated humanely.

The Coalition, which has at least been roughly consistent while in Government, took an ugly swerve towards opportunism in opposition when it refused to support Labor’s proposed border protection measures, even where those measures were to all intents and purposes an echo of their own.

Ugliness is so deeply a part of our political memory in this area that the Government’s attacks on Gillian Triggs are like a fight scene in Godfather III: The violence of the exchange is sickening, but by this stage we’re used to it, to the point where we can consume popcorn while we watch.

“Ugliness is so deeply a part of our political memory in this area that the Government’s attacks on Gillian Triggs are like a fight scene in Godfather.”


In most of these sorts of dustups, everyone usually has some kind of a point. And this one’s no exception; the Prime Minister feels it’s unreasonable that his Government – which has presided over the net withdrawal of children from detention and quelled the arrival of replacements – has copped a full-scale inquiry and withering report from Professor Triggs, when his Labor predecessors didn’t. Fair enough.


Related: Senator Penny Wong: “The Liberals’ bullying of Gillian Triggs has no place in modern Australia.”

The savagery of the attack, however, has achieved two results.

First, it has made Gillian Triggs the story, installing her as – after Peta Credlin – the best-known proxy target in Australian politics right now. Credlin is taking the punches that should be aimed at the Prime Minister. Triggs is taking the punches that should be aimed at Labor. It’s a pretty nasty thing to witness.

The parallel tales of these two scapeladies are laden with reflections not only on their own conduct, but also – at some level – on their adequacy as women. Credlin commits the cardinal female sin of bossiness and is invariably pictured either baring her teeth at Julie Bishop (scrag fight!) or smiling seductively. One columnist, an enthusiastic participant in the Triggs pecking-party, accused her of insufficiently loving her disabled child. Nice.

“Credlin is taking the punches that should be aimed at the Prime Minister. Triggs is taking the punches that should be aimed at Labor. “


All of this has created an unedifying national bunfight that has exactly nothing to do with children who have suffered terribly in detention, a central point no-one has bothered seriously to contest, the real disagreement being rather more about who is more to blame and whether they are being appropriately birched.

Even one of the high-profile supporters of Professor Triggs who stepped forward to defend her the other day – businesswoman Janet Holmes a Court – admitted she hadn’t actually read Triggs’ report. That’s how not-about-children this barney is.


Related: Opinion: “If anyone should resign it’s George Brandis, not Gillian Triggs.”

The whole thing is a matter of deep convenience for the Labor Party. Lord, they must actually be kissing the ground in tactics meetings these days. Because now, rather than blushing every time this policy area is mentioned, which would be the moral thing to do, they can issue press releases accusing the Attorney General of bullying and of procedural decrepitude and of improperly attempting to influence a public official and so on, thus restoring the general, comfortable default position on the Left that Labor is nice to people and the Coalition are beastly old hard-faced sadists, which is ridiculous, of course, as anyone with even a short-term memory would readily agree. If the last eight years have taught us anything at all, it’s that refugee policy doesn’t tend to reflect well on anyone.

Labor might have been horrible to refugees when it was in power, but at least it was nice to Gillian Triggs. As moral high-grounds go, it’s not much, but it’s amazing to see how many people can squeeze on to it.

This article originally appeared on ABC and has been republish with permission.

Annabel Crabb is the ABC’s chief online political writer. She tweets at @annabelcrabb.