Bribing the Human Rights Commissioner – Did the Government Act Illegally?

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It appears that Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs is fighting yet another battle with the Federal Government.

In January, Professor Triggs came under fire after she recommended that an Indonesian man who served his prison time after being convicted of manslaughter be released from indefinite detention, where he has been held without further charge.

And earlier this year, Triggs released her damning report on children in immigration detention, which found that many children had suffered human rights abuses and in some cases had exhibited signs of mental illness.

But Triggs’ comments have attracted considerable criticism by the Federal Government, which has rejected the findings of the report.

Attorney-General George Brandis and Prime Minister Tony Abbott have both made scathing remarks about the findings, with the PM labelling the report ‘a political sitch-up’ and telling Parliament that the government had lost confidence in the Commissioner due to its timing.

The tensions between the Federal Government and Professor Triggs heightened this week after Triggs accused senior members of the government of committing serious criminal offences.

Triggs is reported to have alleged that after calling upon her to resign, the Attorney-General approached her with a job offer in an attempt to induce her to resign from her role as Human Rights Commissioner.

The Opposition has seized upon the reports, arguing that any such conduct would be unlawful under the Commonwealth Criminal Code.

If the claims are proven, did the government break the law?

As Human Rights Commissioner, Professor Triggs is expected to act independently and impartially.

And it appears that she has done so- with her recent report criticising both present and former governments for their treatment of children in immigration detention.

Triggs believes that the job offer was a way for the government to get her resign and thereby avoid further criticism and damage.

Although Triggs was hesitant to label the alleged offer as an ‘inducement,’ she claims that she was “certainly very shaken and shocked” at being asked to resign, and that Brandis’ actions in offering her another role were “disgraceful.”

The Law

Under section 141.1 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code, it is an offence to dishonestly offer to provide, or promise to provide a benefit to a Commonwealth public official with the intention of influencing a public official in carrying out their duties.

The offence carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment.

Section 141.2 of that Act also contains a similar offence of ‘providing a corrupt benefit to a Commonwealth public official.’

The maximum penalty under that section is 5 years imprisonment.

The shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has written to the Australian Federal Police, asking them to investigate the allegations and refer the matter to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions if necessary.

If the Commonwealth DPP is able to substantiate Professor Triggs’ claims and prove that Mr Brandis, they may well form the conclusion that he acted dishonestly and in contravention of the law – which could potentially lead to further action.

A Federal ICAC?

The most recent allegations have renewed calls for a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

State ICACs have the power to investigate allegations of corruption against state government officials, politicians, and members of the public service.

Previous inquiries conducted by the NSW ICAC have uncovered serious instances of corruption by senior officials, including the widely-publicised ‘Grangegate’ scandal concerning former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell last year.

Such investigations have highlighted the possible ramifications of a finding of corruption against a government official, with Premier O’Farrell making the decision to stand down from his position in the days following the revelations.

However, calls for a Federal ICAC have been resisted by the current and former governments, who contend that current systems are adequate for addressing alleged corruption.

Critics of the current system argue that it is fragmented and disjointed; thereby impeding investigations into corruption by government officials.

Whether or not the latest scandal will contribute to the introduction of a Federal ICAC remains to be seen.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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