Attacks on our Human Rights Commission are part of a broader disturbing trend

This article was first published in The Age.

The federal government is actively undermining a range of vital checks and balances and stifling criticism of its actions. This is corrosive for democracy and human rights.

The extraordinary revelations in Senate estimates on Tuesday reveal the depths of the government's attacks on the Australian Human Rights Commission. In early February, Attorney-General George Brandis asked the commission's president, Gillian Triggs, to resign. Triggs described the request, and the associated suggestion that she would be offered other work if she accepted it, as a "disgraceful proposition". It was.

Worse, these attacks are a nasty symptom of a much broader malaise. The federal government is actively undermining a range of vital checks and balances and stifling criticism of its actions. This is corrosive for democracy and human rights.

The commission handed the government its damning report into the harm being inflicted on children in immigration detention on November 11, 2014. The government waited until the last possible day, February 11, 2015, before publicly releasing it. In the meantime, it launched an unprecedented dirty political attack.

In December it announced a 30 per cent funding cut to the commission.

In January Prime Minister Tony Abbott and senior ministers condemned a commission ruling as "pretty bizarre", "offensive" and "likely to shake confidence in the institution."

In early February the government sought Triggs' resignation.

When the report was finally made public, instead of addressing the overwhelming evidence of severe damage to children, the Prime Minister rejected the findings and attacked the report as "blatantly partisan", saying the "commission ought to be ashamed of itself."

The pattern and intent is clear – the government is punishing the commission. 

Forget that the commission was doing its job by investigating and reporting on an important human rights issue in Australia. Forget that the commission was even-handed in its criticism of both sides of politics over their handling of the issue. Forget that on the international stage, Australia is leading the charge to tell other nations to respect the independence of their national human rights institutions. This is a calculated political attack designed to undermine our independent national human rights watchdog.

Bad enough in isolation, what makes these attacks worse is that they are part of broader trend.

Checks and balances – such as independent statutory watchdogs, our independent court system, the rule of law, press freedom, and the ability of non-government organisations to speak freely – are vital to the health of our democracy and for protecting human rights, particularly in the absence of a constitutional or legislative bill of rights.

Since taking office, the government has actively undermined these protections.

A combination of funding cuts, changes to funding agreements and intimidation has been used to stifle advocacy by the NGO sector.

The government changed community legal centre contracts so that federal funding can no longer be used for law reform advocacy, and removed a "no-gag" clause from contracts that had explicitly recognised their freedom to advocate.

It cut funding to a range of centres and announced there will be more cuts to come, without saying where they would land – creating a climate in which organisations are reluctant to speak out for fear of moving to the top of the list for the next round of cuts.

Similar cuts and restrictions have been inflicted on Environment Defenders offices, Aboriginal legal services, refugee legal services, the Refugee Council of Australia, homelessness services, the national drug and alcohol peak body and more.

The cuts send a clear message: organisations that advocate are at risk.

The cuts also damage efforts to address key problems that even the government has identified as priorities. At the same time as appointing an anti-family-violence campaigner as Australian of the year, the government is slashing funding to services that use their experience working with women facing violence to highlight what's wrong with our system.

Press freedom is being curtailed by new anti-terrorism laws that threaten up to 10 years' jail for journalists and others who disclose information about operations the Attorney-General has deemed "special intelligence operations". Journalists attempting to pierce the secrecy around the harm being done to asylum seekers have repeatedly been referred to the federal police in attempts to uncover confidential sources and whistleblowers.

Even the courts and international law are being sidelined.

Migration and counter-terrorism laws are granting extraordinary powers to be exercised at the personal discretion of ministers with court scrutiny curtailed. In a recent hearing into legislation that sought to restrict court review of asylum seeker decisions, Senator Ian Macdonald said the government "doesn't want to be beholden to the High Court who will pick every comma in the wrong place".

Access to the courts is critical in ensuring the law operates in a fair, coherent and predictable way – and to make sure wrong decisions are fixed. Excluding court review is even more concerning where the consequences of mistakes can include the prolonged loss of liberty or deportation to serious risks of harm.

Meanwhile, the government keeps promising it complies with international human rights law in its asylum seeker policies while at the same time legislating to ensure there are no consequences under Australian law if it doesn't.

This undemocratic slide is deeply concerning. We need political and community leadership to respond; to create a climate in which the independence of institutions is protected; where the separation of powers and the rule of law are understood and respected; where freedom of information, not secrecy, is the standard; where NGO advocacy is valued, even when it is uncomfortable for government.

Hugh de Kretser is the executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre.  You can follow him on Twitter @hughdekretser