Gillian Triggs - speaking truth to (political) power
If you are interested in the dynamics of government and how political power is held to account, you should definitely read Gillian Triggs’ interview with the Saturday Paper. Triggs is the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, which means part of her job is to report on human rights abuses by the Australian Government that affect the most vulnerable. It’s clear that those reports are something of an inconvenience to the Australian Government, but that hasn’t stopped Triggs. If anything, it’s hardened her resolve.
And so it should. The very reason we protect things like human rights and establish independent offices to report to the government is to ensure that individuals and their mist basic interests are not simply subject to the political convenience of the government of the day. When it is most inconvenient for the government is when an independent voice is most needed to remind ourselves what we truly stand for.
It’s not just the fact that Triggs is continuing to protect the integrity of her office and its findings that so impressive, it’s the way she does so. She is able to explain in very clear terms what her position is and why it is important. She is never sucked into partisan politics, and indeed goes out of her way to point out that she faces similar issues with all major political parties in Australia. And it’s the way she simply describes the attempts by politicians to discredit her and her office, realising that such action is itself tantamount to the sorts of human rights breaches that she has a duty to expose. Triggs has a complete understanding of the role of her office and how best to promote that role is a principled but robust way.
Reading the interview, I wondered if New Zealand has independent statutory officers that are capable of speaking truth to political power in the same way. There are a number of roles in the public services that are explicitly concerned with government accountability – our own Human Rights Commission, the Waitangi Tribunal, the Auditor‑General and the Ombudsman are probably the most high profile. If, for example, we compare the approach of our Chief Ombudsman, Judge Peter Boshier, on the issue of potential government abuses of the Official Information Act with Triggs’ determined independence, there appears to be at least something of a performance gap. Where Triggs sees political convenience as the natural enemy to her accountability role, Judge Boshier seems to view it something that needs to be recognised and worked with.
That’s not necessarily a criticism of Judge Boshier. His approach might reflect a more pragmatic approach to these issues, which is often identified as something distinctive about New Zealand’s constitutional system. Or it might reflect different budgetary constraints between the two offices – any accountability body can only work with what it has. Or perhaps the New Zealand situation hasn’t escalated to the sorts of problems that appear to afflict Australian politics, where a stronger response is needed.
Whatever the reason, I think we are missing out on the language of strong accountability in New Zealand, and that is to the detriment of our political culture. Our independent bodies tend to equivocate on difficult issues (our Inspector‑General of Intelligence and Security, Cheryl Gwyn, might be the exception), giving the appearance of deference to the government of the day. I think there is a real challenge for our constitutional system to move political thinking from ‘What can I get away with’ to ‘What should I be doing’. A fearlessness from our accountability bodies when speaking truth to power is a very useful first step along that path. We could all stand to learn a little something from Triggs’ example in this respect.