The new head of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, says she is first and foremost a lawyer, despite a long and successful career in academia. Leanne Mezrani caught up with her at the end of her tenure as University of Sydney law school dean.
Gillian Triggs was, until recently, the dean of the faculty of law and Challis professor of international law at the University of Sydney (USYD). Lawyers Weekly interviewed Triggs at her office on campus just before she officially assumed the role of president of the Australian Human Rights Commission (HRC).
As law school dean, Triggs’ role has been primarily administrative. She admits she has “flourished” at USYD, despite the fact she doesn’t identify herself as an academic.
Triggs considers for a moment why someone who prides herself on being a coalface international lawyer is also content working in academia, and concludes that it is the capacity to instigate change.
“If you’re prepared to take on some of the drudgery of being a dean ... you can make things happen that you can’t do when you’re essentially a service provider in law,” she explains.
Since her appointment in 2007, Triggs has certainly changed the face of the law school.
One of her priorities has been to drive the “globalisation” of the law school to ensure law degrees are preparing graduates for transnational and international practice.
Triggs has also introduced a practical component to the study of law. She explains that sandstone universities like USYD do not traditionally focus on clinical education. But, when the law school moved from its CBD address to its current home on the university’s Camperdown campus in 2009, an opportunity presented itself.
Together with Peter Cashman, director of the university’s social justice program, Triggs transformed three floors of the Phillip St building into a social justice legal education clinic. Tenants include a public interest advocacy group, a clearing house for pro bono work and a refugee case work service.
In exchange for free accommodation, these organisations provide internships to students.
“Under the supervision of a solicitor, students have the opportunity to go down there and, say, interview an asylum seeker or a homeless person seeking legal aid,” says Triggs.
“There’s a great layer of pro bono work that’s happening through collaboration between industry, law firms and academia; and these linkages ... are a distinct feature of contemporary legal practice,” she adds.
But two weeks ago, Triggs left the academic world behind and stepped into another administrative role as president of the Australian HRC.
It was “an unexpected opportunity”, she reveals, as she had already indicated to the university that she would like to stay on for another term.
“At this stage of my career I wanted to take my international law background into the area of practice and implementation,” she says.
Fight for rights
As Triggs relays pivotal moments in her career, it becomes clear why the new role was an opportunity that wasn’t going to be passed up. It seems almost all the positions she has held over the past 40 years have been touched, in some way, by human rights law.
Her first job out of Melbourne University was working for the Dallas Police Department in the US, advising the chief of police on the 1964 Civil Rights legislation. She was recruited a few years after the passing of the bill to assist the department in ensuring employment processes were not discriminatory.
The very “white” police department, which had a small number of African-Americans and only one woman, was being closely monitored as it was not long after the assassination of John F Kennedy, she explains.
“The Dallas Police Department became squeaky clean – it had to,” she continues. “The whole country’s eyes, if not the world’s, were on us.”
She describes the experience as “undeniably pivotal”, adding that for a relatively young lawyer of 30 she was granted an “extraordinary opportunity”.
“I really learnt about the leadership role of legislation and the importance of viewing things through the prism of the bill of rights in the United States,” she says.
“I also became very interested in the role of legislation in underpinning basic civil and human rights.”
This interest led to roles as a board member of the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH), Australian representative on the Council of Jurists for the Asia Pacific-Forum for National Human Rights Institutions and director of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law.
She has also been a consultant on international law at King & Wood Mallesons (KWM).
Her former firm’s emphasis on international law meant she had the opportunity to put her hand up for high-profile humanitarian projects, she continues. This included working at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and “controversial work on the invalidity of the coalition of the willing invasion of Iraq”, she adds.
As the president of HRC, Triggs hopes to apply her experience in human rights law to focus the work of the commission on issues most relevant to Australia and the surrounding region.
“The HRC does vast amounts of work and I hope I can help prioritise the work ... and promote primary objectives,” she says.
Issues that will be top of her agenda include the treatment of asylum seekers, issues connected to the Federal Government’s intervention in the Northern Territory, and domestic violence.
The rights of disabled children are another matter that Triggs looks forward to working on at the HRC. She confesses that it is an issue close to her heart.
“I am very personally interested in the disability insurance scheme,” she says. “I understand the problems parents have dealing with a disabled child as my own daughter was very disabled.”
Triggs’ daughter died at the age of 21.
Her two other children are currently working in Europe. When asked if either are lawyers, Triggs laughs, explaining that her daughter is an artist and had no intention of pursuing a career in law.
Her son, on the other hand, has followed in her footsteps and is practising international commercial law with Allen & Overy out of the firm’s Paris office.
Settling down, not slowing down
Living in Sydney with her husband Alan Brown AM (a former Australian diplomat) Triggs confesses she is quite pleased to have settled down at the tail end of a “very international career working in many different countries”, including China, Vietnam, Thailand, Germany and Iran. She recalls a particularly memorable project in Africa, where she worked with the European Commission on capital punishment and human rights law.
She has no intention of slowing down, however, with plans to write a third edition of what she describes as her “magnum opus”, the textbook International Law: Contemporary Principles and Practices, in the next couple of years.
She also plans to co-write a book on international frontiers and boundaries, focusing on the South China seas.
Of her foray into academic writing, Triggs says she is fortunate to be able to marry a commercial legal career with an academic one.
While she says she unquestionably identifies herself as a lawyer, Triggs looks back at her academic career fondly, in particular completing her PhD in territorial sovereignty at Melbourne University.
“The peace and quiet ... and ability to really think and write has been for me a really life-changing experience because you find out what you’re really capable of doing.”