Who is Gillian Triggs anyway?

That is the question that might well have been on people's lips for the last couple of weeks, in a not-that-wacky alternative universe. There was no need for the release of the Human Rights Commission's report on children in detention to be even vaguely difficult for the government to handle. But the Coalition has somehow contrived to turn the release of a critical but eminently manageable report into a full-blown political disaster and an investigation by the Australian Federal Police.

Put aside, for the moment, the morality and culpability of various people embroiled in this dispute. For the record, my own view is this: Gillian Triggs did handle this report in a slightly strange way, and that's probably not unrelated to the fact that her political sympathies are closer to the ALP than the Liberal Party. That doesn't make any difference to the merits of the report or the importance of responding to it rather than slandering its author, and trying to convince an independent human rights officer to step down because of a critical report is unacceptable no matter what little quirks and biases might underlie the timing of the report. But apart from being unacceptable, the government's approach to Triggs and this report has shown a baffling lack of political awareness at every stage.

Let's follow the saga through. Chris Moraitis, the Secretary of the Attorney-General's department, went to Triggs at Attorney-General George Brandis' request to tell her that the government had lost confidence in her and would like it if she resigned, and that if she did so she would be appointed to a different role. (There's some dispute, the subject of the criminal investigation, about how best to characterise those events; but that is basically what happened.)

Did Brandis think Triggs would accept that and resign? It's hard to see why anyone serving on an independent commission would resign on hearing the government had lost confidence in them, given it's their job to be critical of the government. But in particular, if the Liberals thought Triggs was a Labor-leaning partisan, it beggars belief that they'd think she would go along with the suggestion to resign.

Then, as the report was released, Prime Minister Abbott, Brandis, Peter Dutton and a handful of conservative Liberals went into a frenzy criticising it. Abbott called it a "transparently partisan stitch-up"; Ian Macdonald (who once called GetUp "the Hitler Youth wing of the Greens") declare that he hadn't bothered reading it because he knew it was partisan. Unsurprisingly, people rallied to the defence of Triggs - including Tim Wilson! - especially after parts of the Liberal-leaning press got worked up enough to publish attacks on her for how she raised her disabled child.

The ALP has sailed through all this: they issued some really quite reasonable statements about how this report was an indictment of both sides of politics and a demand to work better, and are now comfortably occupying the moral high ground about attacks on Triggs and the independence of the HRC, and watching critics embroil themselves further in the chaos.

This is all the result of atrocious mishandling. There was no need for the Liberal Party to do any more than say: 'this report is important and its subject is extremely serious. It covers both a period of our government and a period of the previous government, and it clearly shows that detention centres are not a place any children should be. We've hugely reduced the number of children suffering in these centres through Operation Sovereign Borders, and this report just shows how important it is that we continue to do that.' It's not as though the Coalition lacks practice at dressing up its brutal refugee policy in a crocodile-tears rhetoric of humanitarianism; that's worked for the last five years and it would have worked this time.

So just why did Abbott, Brandis and co go flying off the rails? It looks a lot like Brandis saw an opportunity to continue his attack on what he sees as the soft leftism of the HRC, the same desire that motivated the appointment of Tim Wilson. Getting Triggs into another role wouldn't just have deflected criticism of the government, but also enabled the appointment of a new President and the continued reshaping of the Commission. For the people who piled in on Triggs - Brandis, Scott Morrison, and the freedom wing - this is red meat that was clearly alluring enough to blind them to the politics of how it would play out.

And indeed when Malcolm Turnbull made comments basically in line with what I've just said the sensible strategy would have been, that apparently eroded his support in the conservative wing, showing him as "out of step on a totemic issue". That seems like good news for Turnbull: if being 'in step' means the political naivety and flailing chaos of the last few weeks, that makes it more and more likely that the rest of the Liberal Party will lose interesting in placating the conservatives who don't want Turnbull back.

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