Australia’s human rights chief is under immense pressure to resign after Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared she no longer has the confidence of the government.
Gillian Triggs faced intense questioning by government senators on Tuesday as she sought to justify the timing of an Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into children in immigration detention.
She claimed the government offered her a senior legal role in exchange for her resignation as commission president.
The claim has been denied by the head of the Attorney-General’s Department, Chris Moraitis, who spoke to Professor Triggs about her position two weeks before the public release of the inquiry’s report in February.
Prof Triggs has been the subject of savage criticism by the government since the report’s release, with Mr Abbott labelling the inquiry a “political stitch-up” and a “blatantly partisan” exercise.
“It is true that the government has lost confidence in the president of the human rights commission,” he told parliament.
But Prof Triggs, who is halfway through a five-year term, is refusing to resign because her position is protected by law in order to prevent political interference.
Attorney-General George Brandis said confidence in Prof Triggs within the government collapsed after her “inconsistent and evasive” testimony to a Senate hearing in November 2014.
“I felt that the political impartiality of the commission had been fatally compromised,” he told an estimates hearing in Canberra on Tuesday.
Senator Brandis said he had high regard for Prof Triggs, but she had made a “terrible error of judgment”.
The commission’s future was at risk because she no longer enjoyed the support of both sides of politics, he said.
The government’s criticism centres on the commission’s decision to establish the inquiry in early 2014, four months after the coalition came to power and after detention numbers had peaked in mid-2013 under Labor.
As well, it claims Prof Triggs inappropriately consulted two Labor ministers during the caretaker period without informing the opposition.
She insists she only met then immigration minister Tony Burke at his invitation.
Prof Triggs vigorously defended the commission’s decision to turn a planned 10-year review into a full-blown inquiry that could demand documentation from the government and compel witnesses to give evidence.
The commission was of the view that it was not receiving all the information it needed from the immigration department following the launch of Operation Sovereign Borders.
Prof Triggs also stood by her claim that Mr Moraitis had discussed her resignation.
“I thought it was a disgraceful proposal,” she said, adding it was an entirely inappropriate offer to make.
She said Mr Moraitis had been embarrassed about the situation.
Neither Senator Brandis nor Mr Moraitis would say what position Prof Triggs was offered when asked by Labor Senate leader Penny Wong.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young questioned whether the offer was a bribe, even though Prof Triggs earlier stated she did not regard it as an inducement.
Labor and the Greens have described the government’s pursuit of Prof Triggs as a witch hunt.
Prof Triggs said Australians could make up their own minds about the inquiry which found the policy of keeping children in detention caused significant mental and physical illness.
“The report speaks for itself,” she said.