Sometimes the ABC produces something worthy of the funding it receives and status it enjoys. Last night it came from probably the most unlikely of programs, their panel show Q&A. It is a program whose host, audience and questioners have been consistently hostile to conservatives and members of the right. It has been infamous for setting up conservative panellists with gotcha questions.
But last night the Q&A producers decided to dish out such a treatment to one of the left’s darlings. Former Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs. To ask the first question was one of the QUT 18C students Calum Thwaites who along with two other students went through a three-year legal ordeal of being sued by academic Cindy Prior under 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act for objecting to Indigenous only computer labs at the Queensland University of Technology in 2013.
The case was thankfully thrown out in the Federal Court in 2016 but as is always the case with these legal proceedings the process is the punishment and Calum and the other students endured months of public scrutiny and of being labelled racists. The students’ barrister Tony Morris QC following the decision of Federal Court slammed Gillian Triggs and Human Rights Commission’s handling of the complaint against the students.
Calum’s initial question to Gillian Triggs criticised her media commentary on 18C during her time as Commission President when the Commission is supposed to be the arbiter of 18C complaints. Tony Jones initially threw the question to Simon Breheny from the Institute of Public Affairs (dare I suggest he was giving Triggs some thinking time?). Triggs’ first answer was all about legal processes at the Commission stating that they received 20,000 complaints a year.
She stated that 2,000 a year go to conciliation which when pressured Triggs claim these complaints meet the statutory standard for the Commission to take them seriously. She talked about how the Commission’s conciliation process aims to provide a resolution and keep the complaint out of the courts. So even if a complaint against you is completely frivolous, if the Human Rights Commission decides it meets their test and they will pressure you to accept a conciliation (which is code for paying go away money).
She even had the audacity to claim the Commission’s staff did an excellent job in dealing with QUT 18C case. But both Simon Breheny and Calum Thwaites pointed out to Triggs that the students were not told about the complaint against them for 14 months and only 2 days before conciliation proceedings were due to commence. Triggs claimed the students were not told at the asking of the University who thought the case could be conciliated without the involvement of students.
Simon Breheny was quick to add that shouldn’t the Commission have told all respondents? After all if somebody is accusing you of being a racist and wants to sue you, surely you have the right to be told of this very serious allegation against you and not have your fate decided in some secret star chamber between people you have never met nor authorised to act on your behalf? Triggs most laughable justification for not telling the students was that they didn’t have all the contact details for the students (then find them out).
The two journalists who were part of the program host Tony Jones and Fairfax investigative reporter Kate McClymont displayed a high level of ignorance about the case. Kate asked Calum why he went into the indigenous only computer lab when it was public knowledge he was not one of the students who did and the comment he made on the University Facebook group was determined to have been made by a fake account. Tony Jones then asked Calum did the students enter the lab as part of protest, when it has been repeatedly established that the students who went in just wanted to use a computer.
Liberal Senator Eric Abetz who was also on the panel spoke about the QUT case being an example of bureaucracy and political correctness gone mad. The Labor Senator on the panel Lisa Singh also claimed ignorance about the facts of the case but made a general defence of the Human Rights Commission and how it is need edfor multicultural society such as Australia.
It would appear that all Calum Thawties wanted was for Triggs to admit she and the Commission she was running at the time mishandled the complaint against him and that she was sorry and regretted the ordeal he and the other students when through over three years. Triggs did say she was she was sorry they were not advised in good time and regretted that the matter was not settled.
It took a lot of cross examining to obtain this admission out of Triggs and some form of an apology. Credit has to go to Calum for having the bravery and confidence to confront Triggs on national television and continuing to press her when she was not giving a straight answer and tried to hide behind legal mazes. Credit also must go to the ABC for allowing Calum to ask such a question, if only we can see more fairness like this from the ABC in the future.