George Brandis has had a rough time of it since achieving his dream of becoming Attorney-General. He was found out billing taxpayers for attending the wedding of failed shockjock Michael Smith; his apparently inexhaustible taxpayer-funded appetite for books became a running joke in politics; his attempts to amend the Racial Discrimination Act have collapsed in a heap, and according to one report, he even suffered the ignominy of Malcolm Turnbull, a far better and far more successful lawyer than Brandis will ever be, correcting his work in cabinet.

Yesterday much of his time at estimates was given over to laboriously explaining that his portfolio had not cut funding for the royal commission into child sexual abuse in favour of the government’s pink batts witchhhunt, or if it had cut funding it was entirely innocuous and wouldn’t affect the operation of the royal commission, which is likely to be extended.

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But last night, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam raised an altogether more serious matter, the killing of two men, Christopher Harvard of Townsville and a New Zealander with Australian citizenship named “Muslim Bin John”, in a US drone strike in Yemen last year.

The killing of two Australian citizens — who were, we were told by anonymous sources, not the targets of the strike, but travelling with the targets — was a matter of complete indifference to the government when it was revealed in April, despite the strike being conducted in apparent breach of the US government’s own code for such attacks. Ludlam took the opportunity of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs estimates hearings to establish how the the government views drone strikes.

“… two Australians have been killed and the government has exactly zero interest in their deaths.”

“What’s the Australian government’s understanding of the legality under international law of these strikes?” Ludlam asked Brandis. Brandis initially claimed the question was too broad to answer, but then said “nevertheless I’m not aware the Australian government has a view of the legality of these matters”.

“Are you comfortable that they’re legal under international law given two Australians were blown away in one of these strikes?” Ludlam continued. Brandis refused to comment, and then said it would be inappropriate to comment. The chief law officer, usually so voluble and so eloquent in his Philosophy I-level musings about the importance of liberty and the efforts of the Left to undermine it, had nothing to offer on the killing of the two men.

You may be of the view that Harvard and “Muslim Bin John” were terrorists, or would-be terrorists, who got what was coming to them — or that they were at best recklessly indifferent to their own safety by being in the company of terrorists. But you don’t know. No one knows, because there was no due process in relation to their killing by a foreign government; indeed, there is no evidence the strike was  conducted in accordance with the Obama administration’s public commitment to only use drone strikes when a target “poses a continuing, imminent threat to US. persons”.

What obligation does a government owe to its citizens? The Australian government ostensibly provides consular support even for Australians convicted of crimes overseas — something that hadn’t happened to these two men. It ostensibly protests to other governments if Australians are subject to inappropriate or illegal actions. It seeks to protect Australians from harm, from other governments or non-government actors, where it can.

But the smirking indifference of the country’s chief law officer, bordering on resentment at even being asked about such matters, reflects a different view, a view that this government couldn’t care less that two Australian citizens were incinerated by the US, couldn’t care less about the lack of due process, the lack of any conviction of the men who were killed. This is a government content to anonymously background journalists that Harvard was “suggested” to have been involved in kidnapping westerners in Yemen, without evidence, as justification for his death.

Perhaps the government has all the evidence it needs that the strike was justified and that Harvard and Bin John were a real threat. It has shown no interest in providing any of that evidence, whereas at least New Zealand Prime Minister John Key was prepared to provide some details about what role New Zealand security agencies had played in relation to Bin John.

But as it stands, two Australians have been killed and the government has exactly zero interest in their deaths, nor does it even have a position — positive, negative, neutral — on whether their killing was legal. Foreign governments are apparently welcome to kill Australians, provided they can explain their deaths away as part of the War on Terror, and this government will be indifferent. And what a malignant indifference it is.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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