Why the Government Is Talking About Gillian Triggs and not Children in Detention

Canberra responded to a damning report from the Australian Human Rights Commission by attacking the Commission's president and avoiding the issue altogether.

by Lee Zachariah
Feb 26 2015, 2:59am

Image by Ben Thomson

"In two-thousand-one, America was attacked," said President George W Bush at a press conference in 2006, giving his standard 9/11-themed prelude as he set about making a legitimately important announcement regarding the civil war that had broken out in Iraq as a consequence of the 2003 US-led invasion.

Channel Ten cut from that footage to the two couch-dwelling presenters of that month's attempt to create a successful breakfast show. Their reaction to the announcement was profoundly telling in every important respect. "Since when did we start saying 'two-thousand-one' ?" asked the male one. "Isn't it two-thousand-and-one?" They swatted this idiomatic debate about for a few moments before throwing to a vacuum cleaner infomercial.

Maybe I'm expecting too much from that musician-turned-presenter who shall remain nameless to spare him the embarrassment. Or perhaps David Reyne was being deliberate and meta by segueing from entirely vacuous comments to an ad for vacuum cleaners. Or, just maybe, it's reporting like this that gets us into these damn wars in the first place by ignoring difficult topics and focusing on the trivial and bland.

This is hardly a partisan problem. Remember late last year when Barack Obama wore that tan suit at a press conference and the subsequent bluster from US Republicans who thought it was disrespectful and un-Presidential? Now do you remember what he was actually talking about at the press conference? It was nothing terribly important, just ISIS gaining ground in Iraq and Syria. But all anyone remembers is the tan suit.

It's tempting to blame this on the Twitter Generation, because the bite-sized micro-blogging and reductive trending hashtags seem as if they were designed purely to be the perfect analogy for this issue, but as we can see with the unnamed former Chantoozies drummer demonstrates, it's been around for a while.

But this week... man, this week it's been something else altogether.

At the Oscars, Patricia Arquette accepted her Best Supporting Actress award by calling for equal pay for women. It was the speech that launched a thousand hot-take think pieces: had she failed to properly acknowledge women of colour? Or the fact that men of colour often earn less than white women? What did she mean about women fighting for everyone elses' causes like racial equality and gay rights and that it was time for them to stand up for themselves? Can we once and for all agree on who's the most oppressed?

It was Arquette's imperfect, unintentionally, and slightly exclusive phrasing that got everyone hot and bothered. The substance — that women are still earning significantly less than men in the 21st fucking century — did not. Because highlighting long-acknowledged truths does not create headlines in the way "actress does something that we can attach the word 'privilege' to" does.

But the problem goes much deeper than Oscar reflection pieces because, let's be honest, accusing people of writing superficially about the Oscars is like berating McDonald's for using pink slime instead of real chicken. (Which they do now, apparently. Sometimes memes are good for something.)

And speaking of Macdonald's being terrible for you: Senator Ian Macdonald.

The other day in Senate estimates, the President of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, was being hauled across the coals due to her report on children in immigration detention centers. If you're not familiar with the situation, we won't recount the entire thing, but the short story is that the report, which was launched after the last election, was accused of being biased due to the fact that it would be released during the Coalition's reign. Forgetting for the moment that it was Labor that created the need for the report.

Senator Penny Wong questioned Gillian Triggs over the early February meeting in which Attorney-General George Brandis (via department secretary Chris Moraitis) had asked her to resign because her actions had been perceived as biased and the government was claiming it had lost faith in her.

Senator Barry O'Sullivan interjected, joking to Senator Ian Macdonald that he "thought you might like to hear a man's voice". We'll come back to that.

Later, Senator Macdonald admitted that he had not, in fact, read the commission's Children In Detention report, because he was sure it was biased.

There's no question that Senator Macdonald's refusal to read the commission's report is symptomatic of this tl;dr world where anything beyond the third bullet point dissolves in a bleary-eyed haze of boredom, and that he should probably resign immediately if he's too incompetent to even skim the thing he's holding a hearing about. (And hey, before we get accused of bias, it's worth noting that Labor has its own troubled Ian Macdonald.) But Senator Macdonald's lack of shame — his astonishing, unbelievable lack of shame — highlights just how strategic all of this is.

He knows that the moment the Government engages with the substance of the report and the facts therein, they're in a losing battle. But if you call into question the integrity of the person — basically, shooting the messenger — then the conversation is on your terms.

It's a strategy that's worked for the Coalition in the past. It's why the ABC is still unsure of how to report the extraordinary implosion of the Coalition Government, still fearing the ongoing accusations of left-wing bias (despite all the evidence that they actually over-correct and lean to the right).

It's why the Government is happy to make a song-and-dance about losing confidence in Professor Triggs and asking her to resign.

It's why Senator O'Sullivan ignores the substance of Professor Triggs's arguments, and instead makes a joke about how women tend to talk a lot!!! You may have thought he'd said that because he was a relic of misogynist with no business being in any position of power, but it turns out there's a second reason too.

We know why the government does this. It makes perfect sense for them to obfuscate a report that's unbelievably damning to both this Government and the previous one, and pretend it's a witch hunt for them alone. They'd rather journalists cover this non-controversy instead of the 242 children currently in detention, or the 33 instances of child sex abuses, or that one of those girls allegedly sexually assaulted (16 years old) attempted to kill herself by jumping off a building because she was afraid of further assault. Who wants to take responsibility for that? Partisan bickering is way more fun and easier to digest.

That's why the government does it, but what's our excuse? Why do we buy into this game and engage in the fun left vs right nonsense instead of what actually matters? It had better be something better than tl;dr.

So, as I accept my award for Least Self-Aware Writer Using His Hot Take Think Piece To Tear Down Hot Take Think Pieces, I say this: can we please stop with the faux outrage and the headline-skimming and actually get to the substance of this stuff? After all, it's two-thousand-fifteen.

Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah