Gillian Triggs taught me international law many moons ago. I’m amazed that anyone would accuse her of acting in a partisan way. For left or right. She was one of my favourite lecturers. So smart, so sassy. She had shoulder length, shining red hair and more often than not wore twinsets and pearls. No closet lefty then (nor would I expect now). Every class she would stride purposefully into the Old Arts lecture room, bang her books down on the podium and launch straight in. This was in the early days of international law being taken seriously in Australia. Lionel Murphy was only just starting to shake the High Court out of it’s solidly Anglo common law traditions. To the horror of conservatives he was peppering his judgements with references to international treaties and obligations. It was long before there was an International Court of Justice. I loved her lectures and looked forward to them. Her course was rigorous and challenging.
While not seen as serious a subject as the black letter law staples of tort, mercantile and contract law, international law was not regarded as a soft subject. Gillian saw to that. She took us through international treaty making processes and the obligations of nation states to adhere to common, higher principles once they signed up. International law was a force for good in the world and emerging as something that mattered more and would continue to do so into the future. We didn’t just cover humanitarian issues. There were also economic and environmental treaties being negotiated that were bringing new rights and obligations into effect.
The lectures were incredibly stimulating. Tightly presented, no nonsense. But good humoured. Gillian knew her subject and exuded authority. She didn’t curry favour with students but was always herself – authentic and straight talking. She didn’t belittle or patronise students. She didn’t shout – didn’t need to, ever. She occasionally looked bemused and didn’t suffer fools gladly – when she’d sometimes use one of the the expressions in the photos below. But she was never discourteous. She was a strong woman in a male world but never talked about feminism or politics. Given her behaviour – strong and independent – I thought she probably was a feminist, but I never considered she was left leaning in her politics. On the contrary, with her twinsets and pearls I thought she was probably conservative.
In the callowness of youth I thought this even more probable because she was at the time married to Sandy Clark, the Dean of the Law School. I’ve no idea of his politics at the time either but then we thought anyone in that position was sure to be a Tory. (Not necessarily I now realise – but back then we were young and foolish). I was in the Law Students Society (in the unlikely position of Treasurer) and some of us were invited to Gillian and Sandy’s house for dinner. A beautifully renovated home in North Carlton. It had a library in a round tower, Sandy’s Folly Gillian called it. She played Dean’s wife and gracious host to perfection. It was the first time I’d been to a dinner party where everyone was told where to sit – and I thought this the height of sophistication.
After university I heard – I can’t remember how, when and from whom – through the grapevine as the saying goes – that she’d had a child with Sandy born with profound disabilities and not expected to live. And later I heard (through the same grapevine) that they had divorced. And I was sad for her. And at the memory of the glamorous couple they had been. She’d been a real role model for me at an important time in my life. An example of how to be strong and forthright but true to yourself. And also charming and gracious. I’ve never forgotten her. Nor have I followed her career since.
Until now – when the unseemly behaviour of an Attorney- General and Prime Minister have put her front and centre of an ugly political storm. One of many this Prime Minister has been responsible for. And hopefully one of his last as Prime Minister. So here she is – my memorable former teacher. Just as I’ve always remembered her. Calm, authoritative and full of integrity. What ridiculous accusations. Partisan?! Rubbish. What patronising, rude bastards they were at Senate Estimates! And what word parsing – a job, a role. And what a great departmental secretary we have here, being paid how much? To do his job professionally and impartially. But hey look -no notes! And they accuse her of a stitch up. Unbelievable. Like the good Senator, I have not read her report. But that’s for a very different reason. I can’t bear to read about the conditions in which those children are kept. Have been kept. For so long. Under both Labor and Liberal Governments. Shame on us all. And may we continue to have an independent Human Rights Commission and a strong Human Rights Commissioner prepared to tell us what is being done in our name. Keep it up Gillian!
I love these pictures taken by, and tweeted by Andrew Meares. She’s older and got a different haircut, but I know those expressions well!