Question Time: Should George Brandis resign over Gillian Triggs mis-handling?
Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:20): My question is to the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, regarding the President of the Human Rights Commission. I note the testimony of the Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, Mr Moraitis, who told Senate estimates that he was asked by the minister to:
... formally put on the table or mention that there would be a senior legal role, a specific senior role, that her skills could be used for-
which the president could not accept without resigning her current position. When will the minister stop saying, 'Gillian Triggs's resignation was never sought,' and admit he placed unprecedented and unwarranted pressure on an independent office holder to resign?
Senator BRANDIS (Queensland-Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Vice-President of the Executive Council, Minister for Arts and Attorney-General) (14:21): I do not mean any discourtesy, Senator Wright, but I will have to look at the President in answering this question. Through you, Mr President-Senator Wright, I was not a party to that conversation. There were two parties to that conversation: Mr Moraitis and Professor Triggs. Mr Moraitis's evidence about that conversation was unequivocal-that he did not ask for Professor Triggs's resignation-and I believe Mr Moraitis. I believe Mr Moraitis and I accept everything he said in his evidence.
In relation to the balance of Senator Wright's question: Senator Wright, I have said on the four occasions now on which I have publicly addressed this issue-on Sky Agenda on 1 February, in Senate estimates last Tuesday, in The Australian newspaper in an op-ed column on Friday and in the debate on the motion this morning in the Senate-and I say it again, that I have a great deal of respect for Professor Triggs as an international lawyer. I am unlike others-I am actually familiar with her reputation as an international lawyer. I actually studied her scholarly works, so I know what her reputation is.
It is absolutely not to the point that I may have a high regard for Professor Triggs as an international lawyer whether or not her discharge of the role of President of the Australian Human Rights Commission was tainted by partisanship or, at least, the impression of partisanship, as a result of her decision on the timing of the report. (Time expired)
Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:23): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The Attorney-General has justified this unprecedented attack on the president on the basis that the government has lost confidence in the president of the Human Rights Commission. If losing the confidence of the Liberal Party is grounds for resignation, can I ask the Attorney-General and, indeed, the Prime Minister what they are still doing in their jobs?
Senator Ian Macdonald: What a stupid question!
Senator Ronaldson: What have you done for yourself?
Senator Kim Carr: Come on, Lord Brandis! Tell us all about it!
The PRESIDENT: Order! On my left and on my right! Attorney-General, the question is not completely in order. I invite you to address any portion of the question that you may or may not wish to answer.
Senator BRANDIS (Queensland-Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Vice-President of the Executive Council, Minister for Arts and Attorney-General) (14:24): I would be delighted to, Mr President.
Senator Wright, really and truly-I thought you were a little bit better than asking questions that are so glib and trivial they could have come from Senator Conroy. The fact is, Senator Wright, that I am sorry to say the government has lost confidence in Professor Gillian Triggs as President of the Australian Human Rights Commission. It is absolutely essential that the Human Rights Commission and all of its officers command the confidence of both sides of politics-the opposition and the government. In particular, for the very reason bizarrely explained by Senator Moore in her contribution this morning-because the Human Rights Commission on occasion has to criticise the government of the day. And the only way in which the Human Rights Commission can be credible when it embarks on a task like that is to be seen, like Caesar's wife, to be beyond blemish-in this case, beyond political blemish.
Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:25): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Given the Attorney-General's disgraceful attack on an independent office holder and the embarrassment this has clearly caused to the government, will the minister be induced to accept a specific role on the backbench in the event of a successful leadership challenge against the Prime Minister?
Senator Ian Macdonald: That's not an allowable question!
Senator Payne: How is that in order?
The PRESIDENT: Order on my right! Senator Wright, again, I will invite the Attorney-General to address any part of that question that he wishes to.
Senator BRANDIS (Queensland-Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Vice-President of the Executive Council, Minister for Arts and Attorney-General) (14:26): Senator Wright, you have changed. You used to be a serious person-I am sorry about that!
The fact is that on no occasion have I personally attacked the president of the Human Rights Commission. And if you make that allegation, Senator Wright, I invite you to identify a single statement I have made in which I have attacked the president of the Human Rights Commission. To say that the government has lost confidence in the reputation for political impartiality of the statutory head of an agency is not a personal attack; it is something that a government or, indeed, any member of the Senate-and a conclusion that a government or, indeed, any member of the Senate-in an appropriate case, is entitled to arrive at. And if that person happens to be the minister, the minister has an obligation to be honest with the public about the fact that that is their conclusion and the reasons for it. That is what I have sought to do.