First published by The Hoopla, 25 February 2015
Tony Abbott has accused Gillian Triggs, the President of the Human Rights Commission, of losing the confidence of the Australian people. Accusations are flying that his government tried to move her sideways by offering her another senior role. The police have been called in.
The whole sorry episode has raised questions about democracy, the independence of public servants, and it has even started a trending hashtag #IStandWithGillianTriggs. But in an era when employment is precarious and often contract-based, the Triggs case also raises broader questions about the ability of workers to withstand pressure from employers determined to get certain results, even if they might not be fair or right.
Unless they have plenty of other work options available to them, workers on casual or contract employment will always find it harder to express unpopular opinions, even when they are honestly held, than a worker in a permanent job.
Around 35% of the Australia workforce is employed on a casual or contract basis. These are forms of employment that may suit those whose skills are in high demand, but for the vast majority, such workplace arrangements can lead to feelings of insecurity and stress about where their next pay cheque will come from.
In this precarious employment environment, it’s fair to ask how often are employees tempted to do the thing their employer wants them to do – fiddle the numbers, or skew the report findings to present a favourable outcome – rather than the thing they know is right and true?
In 2013 in NSW senior executives in the public service – which includes many senior policy workers who provide advice to government – were moved onto “ongoing contracts”. Such contracts don’t have the same security as permanent contracts: it’s a trend that’s being rolled out across the public service, and it’s one that can have a chilling effect on advice these public servants provide.
Triggs, as a 69-year-old lawyer nearing the end of a long working life, including a glittering career as a barrister and dean of law at the University of Sydney, is in a less vulnerable position than many others. And the high profile nature of her case has provided her with immeasurable public support. More vulnerable are those who have just commenced careers, those whose skills are not in high demand, and those who can be easily replaced (with barely anyone noticing) if they displease their masters.
“I believe I am very able to carry out the work of the commission and that I have the support of the commissioners and the staff,” Professor Triggs said during a day-long appearance before a Senate committee. Could you make the same strong statement?