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Labor refers Brandis to police over offer to Human Rights Commission president

Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs said she had no doubt the seeking of her resignation and the offer of a future role were connected. AAP/Lukas Coch

After a day-long government assault on Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs, she’s still in place. But Labor has asked the police to investigate the conduct of Attorney-General George Brandis.

It has not exactly been a political triumph.

An embattled government has embarked on an unnecessary fight, all because it is furious about the commission’s “Forgotten Children” report.

Its main beef is that the inquiry was started after the Coalition – which has released a large number of children in immigration detention – came to power, rather than under Labor, when the numbers were at a peak.

The government may indeed have a reasonable argument on timing. But the political cost of its vendetta, the full details of which emerged at a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday, is mainly to itself.

It looks to be persecuting the woman who’s stood up for the children.

It flaunts its prejudice. Liberal senator Ian Macdonald, chair of the estimates committee, said he hadn’t even read the report. “I don’t waste my time reading documents I am going to take no notice of,” he told Sky.

And, unless Triggs suddenly crumples, the government can’t win. Brandis made it clear there was no allegation of misconduct against her. Her statutory five-year term runs to mid-2017.

It took backbencher Craig Laundy, speaking in the Liberal party room, to point to a better tactic. Laundy told his colleagues he’d just spent a week in his Sydney electorate of Reid, a “compassionate place”, and he was getting push-back. The government should be focusing on the children, not shooting the messenger, he said.

But Abbott, programmed for aggression, had Triggs squarely in his sights at question time, and evidence to the committee during Tuesday documented how Brandis had sent his emissary, armed with a modest lump of sugar, to see if Triggs could be pushed out.

George Brandis looks at Gillian Triggs during the estimates hearing on Tuesday. AAP/Lukas Coch

At the committee hearing, the scene was surreal, with the key players on both sides of the battle sitting cheek by jowl to face the questioning senators.

Triggs recounted how, in a February 3 meeting, the Attorney-General’s departmental secretary, Chris Moraitis, informed her “he had been asked to deliver the message from the Attorney that he required my resignation … [Moraitis] told me that no reason had been given”.

The secretary had also “said that I would be offered other work with the government” in some advisory capacity using her expertise as an international lawyer.

Triggs said she had no doubt the seeking of her resignation and the offer of a future role were “connected”.

Triggs rejected the proposition out of hand, thinking it “a disgraceful proposal”.

“To suggest that I should, in the light of the political environment and the concerns about the inquiry, quietly step down and take another position that might reflect my skills I thought was an entirely inappropriate offer to make someone who has a position that is designed to prevent that kind of proposal.”

Moraitis’ evidence differed in detail. He said Triggs had earlier requested he seek Brandis’s views “about her role and her status as chairman”, and he passed this on to the minister.

Brandis subsequently instructed him to tell Triggs that he did not have confidence in her as commission president but had high regard for her legal skills and “the government would be prepared to consider positively a senior legal role for her”. He denied using the word “resignation” to her.

Attorney-General Secretary Chris Moraitis reacts during the Senate Estimates hearing. AAP/Lukas Coch

Moraitis – who incidentally was one of Triggs’ law students – appeared uncomfortable at the hearing, the more so as he had to confess he’d lost his notes of conversations.

That Brandis delegated the conveyance of the bad news to his recently appointed departmental head is a bad look. Originally Brandis had intended to meet Triggs himself, but cancelled to attend a prime ministerial function.

Triggs was careful to avoid describing the offer as an “inducement”. “I prefer not to use that term, especially as it is a legal term of art. At that time, I would not have been thinking along those lines at all. But I certainly, in a layman’s sense, saw it as a basis for motivation.” Not, however, one that motivated her.

Naturally Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young had no such inhibition, telling the committee: “It sounds like a bribe, it smells like a bribe. What we’re trying to work out is whether it is.”

For Labor, it was off to the police, with shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus heading his letter to Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin: “Possible Contravention of the Criminal Code by the Attorney-General”.

Dreyfus wrote that Brandis’ “offer to an independent statutory officer of an inducement to resign her position as president, with the object of affecting the leadership of the [commission] to avoid political damage to the Abbott government may constitute corrupt and unlawful conduct”. He asked for a police investigation “as a priority” and a referral to the Director of Public Prosecutions if appropriate.

At the hearing, Brandis sought to deal with the obvious question: if the government wanted to get rid of Triggs from her post why would it think her suitable for some other role?

Brandis said he had concluded after a November estimates hearing, where Triggs gave “inconsistent and evasive evidence” about the inquiry’s origin, and from what was being said about her within the government, that it was “not tenable” she continue in her position.

“The political impartiality of the commission had been fatally compromised”; she had “lost the confidence of one side of politics”.

Still, Brandis professed to have a high regard for Triggs personally and professionally. He’d heard she’d been considering her position and that she was concerned about “damage to her reputation were she to stand aside against this barrage, in particular of press and political criticism. I did not want to see her reputation damaged.”

Abbott, in a blustering question time performance, professed to know nothing about the Brandis offer. “I do not claim to be across what may or may not have been canvassed between the President of the Human Rights Commission and the Attorney or indeed any other member of this government,” he told the House.

“All I know is that this government has lost confidence in the President of the Human Rights Commission,” repeating his claim that the inquiry had been a stitch-up.

Is it really credible Abbott wasn’t briefed on the discussions with Triggs?

The government is trying to force out the head of a statutory body, the issue is being fiercely contested at a committee hearing on the day, and the prime minister says he is not across it!

If this is true, Abbott is guilty of arrogance or negligence.

Reflecting on the situation towards the end of the day, Brandis told the committee, “I don’t know where we go from here.” Indeed. The government, one might say, had stitched itself up.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest, Cathy McGowan, here.

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