Labor has written to Australian Federal Police asking it to investigate whether Attorney-General George Brandis and his department were involved in “corrupt and unlawful conduct” over plans to offer Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs an alternative role if she left her position.
Fairfax Media reports that shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus raised the matter with AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin following testimony in Senate Estimates yesterday over conversations Chris Moraitis, the Attorney-General’s departmental secretary, had with Professor Triggs over senior roles she could take if she stepped down as HRC president.
His letter says:
“The Attorney-General’s offer to an independent statutory officer of an inducement to resign her position as president, with the object of affecting the leadership of the [HRC] to avoid political damage to the Abbott Government may constitute corrupt and unlawful conduct.
“Professor Triggs said there was ‘no doubt in her mind’ that the request to resign and the offer of further work were ‘very clearly linked’.”
Triggs was appointed in July 2012 for a fixed five-year term. It is a criminal offence to offer a public officer any inducements to influence outcomes.
Under questioning from ALP and Greens senators during a testy senate committee hearing, Moraitis said the issue of a new job was discussed in a meeting with Triggs on February 3, shortly before the HRC report was released. He said he did not use the word resignation or tie the job offer to her giving up the HRC role, nor did he consider it an inducement.
But he conceded “one would flow from the other”.
George Brandis told the committee he’d lost confidence in Triggs over the timing of her report, which in itself was an “error in judgement” that left the HRC open to accusations of “political partisanship”.
“I felt that the political impartiality of the Human Rights Commission had been fatally compromised,” he said.
“I had reached the conclusion, sadly, that Professor Triggs should consider her position.
“As a matter of goodwill towards her and in earnest of my good intentions towards her, I did say to Mr Moraitis that I hoped Professor Triggs could be encouraged or would be willing to serve the Government in other capacities.”
Coalition senators quizzed Triggs relentlessly and aggressively about her report into asylum seeker children in detention, as well as her motivations.
Committee chair Ian Macdonald, who admitted he hadn’t read the report, lectured Prof Triggs on how he expected her to answer questions.
“This is what I want you to do,” Macdonald told Prof Triggs. “I want you to speak in first person, you’re talking about it in the third person.”
The session had sexist undertones on occasion, with Liberal senator Barry O’Sullivan telling Labor’s Penny Wong “Oh dear, oh dear, Penny, settle down” after she accused him of bullying the HRC president during repeated aggressive questioning.
O’Sullivan also interjected with “I thought you might like to hear a man’s voice” during the hearing.
Prof Triggs testified that the meeting with Moraitis was to ask for resignation with an offer of another role if she did, but she rejected it out of hand.
She said she was “shaken and shocked” by the offer and considered it a bribe.
“I don’t recall the precise words but I know that he said that I would be offered other work with the Government,” she told the senators.
“I said ‘this sounds like a bribe’.”
When Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young used the term “bribe”, Macdonald pushed her to withdraw and at one stage requested she leave the hearing. She refused.
The Greens are also looking at referring the Triggs issue to the AFP.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott ramped up his attacks on the HRC president during question time yesterday, saying that they had lost confidence in her and accused her of a “political stitch-up”.
“It’s absolutely crystal clear, this inquiry by the president of the Human Rights Commission is a political stitch up,” he said.
“All I know is that this Government has lost confidence in the president of the Human Rights Commission.”
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