The paella or the pie? The choice of cuisine at the National Press Club lunchtime address was so vexing I couldn’t decide. In any event, freedom was good enough fare for me, good, honest tucker that nourishes the soul and lifts the spirit. That was what I’d really come for, and my lunch date Attorney-General George Brandis wasn’t about to let me down.

George wasn’t there alone: he’d brought some colleagues — the Sandgroper with the Keating-style permanent five o’clock shadow, Michael Keenan, and Connie Fierravanti-Wells, the Coalition’s official Ambassador to the Ethnics, a role she obtained presumably because of that lovely house in Umbria she owns. The national security glitterati — the securitate? — were also there: newly minted ASIO head Duncan Lewis, even more newly minted Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin, and the slightly less newly minted head of the Attorney-General’s Department, Chris Moraitis — the replacement for that oleaginous favourite of Crikey’s Roger “you know where you can stick your privacy” Wilkins, sadly departed to spin his bow tie, and his particular kind of bureaucratic bullshit, elsewhere.

But lest one wrongly conclude that George and the securitate were there to move that “delicate balance between freedom and security” a bit further toward the latter, he was in fact giving a speech titled “Securing Freedom in the Age of Terrorism”.

And George had a story to tell, as it turned out, a story of how no one had expected terrorism to surge back into public debate the way it has, but that it was nonetheless the fault of Labor, and specifically the Gillard government. Remember that Julia Gillard, according to Brandis, squeaking under the protection of parliamentary privilege in 2012, was a “crook”, but the chief law officer yesterday had a bigger bone to pick with her, lamenting that as prime minister she had declared the 9/11 decade over when the Coalition knew all along that terror was just lying doggo, waiting to leap out again to, errm, terrorise us, or at least waiting for a suitably desperate government to go looking for it.

Simultaneous with his speech, Brandis announced that Duncan Lewis’ merry band of spooks was getting an extra $200 million from taxpayers. By way of context, ASIO’s entire annual budget was less than $200 million as late as 2005-06. While one might suspect the $200 million is to enable them to find the keys to the front door of their splendid lakeside edifice on which taxpayers have wasted the best part of a billion dollars, in fact, George advised, it was to “restore” ASIO’s funding, which had been reduced by efficiency dividends. Earlier this week, Julie Bishop had been blunter, complaining that Labor hadn’t focused sufficiently on terrorism. By that, she presumably meant, ASIO’s budget only grew by 40% and over 400 staff, between the final Howard government budget and the final Gillard government budget — the kind of negligence for which, surely, the Left has QUESTIONS TO ANSWER.

“George made a face. The face he must have given the PM when Abbott told him he’d royally buggered the 18C amendment and it was being dumped before he could bugger it up anymore.”

It was strange, though, that when time came for questions, George had a different charge to make at Labor. “I don’t want to be overly partisan,” he said, “but frankly I think the side of politics which has in its DNA to keep governments small and to keep freedom large, can be better trusted to handle these matters without overreaching on the side of politics which believes that expansion of the power of the state is the solution to every problem.”

So there you have it: Labor is simultaneously both too soft on terrorism and too hard, unable to be trusted to keep the necessary organs of government large enough to deal with security, but somehow inclined to give those organs too much power.

I could only nod on hearing such words and contemplate what might have happened if Labor were still in government — laws to jail journalists? Perhaps. Proposals to collect the population’s web browsing and telephone histories? Maybe. Extension of powers of detention without trial? Almost certainly. Plus, there was George’s personal commitment to freedom. “As a lawyer, I have a bred-in-the-bone respect for due process and the rule of law,” he had insisted during his speech. This had put me in mind of another George, viz. Thorogood, and I started quietly humming “bbbbbbbred-in-the-bone”, lost in a reverie in which a leather-clad Brandis sat astride a motorbike while Thorogood’s guitar-riff-that-launched-a-thousand-jeans-ads resounded, the swaggering soundtrack to the Attorney-General’s personal Freedom Ride.

Journalists continued to ask George questions, but whenever he opened his mouth I could only hear the other George. My Saturday Paper office mate Sophie Morris asked him about his personal journey from ostentatious civil libertarian to imprisoner of journalists (I summarise); all I heard in response was about how he “broke a thousand hearts” and would “break a thousand more”.

I’m here to tell ya honey
That I’m bred in the bone
Bbbbbred in the bone

In my mind, George was Freedom-Riding through the Press Club now, Connie F-W on pillion, elegant Milan-styled burqa flowing behind her — Brandis, we should note, commendably shares none of the Prime Minister’s wishy-washy six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-the-other-do-I-dogwhistle-or-not ambivalence on the Distraction Du Jour, “Does My Bomb Look Big In This”.

But suddenly the reverie was interrupted. It was my turn to ask a question. What to ask? My eye had been caught by George averring mid-speech that “the paramount duty of any government is to keep our people safe”. Well then, I inquired of him, what about the 1000-odd Australians who’d been murdered in domestic violence in the last decade — where was the extra money and the extra powers to keep them safe?

Well. George made a face. The face he must have given the PM when Abbott told him he’d royally buggered the 18C amendment and it was being dumped before he could bugger it up anymore. The face he must have given parliamentary services when they told the Brobdingnagian bookcase in his old office, carefully built to be proportional to his ego, could only be moved to the ministerial wing by teleportation. The look he must have given his media adviser after he was allowed to go on Sky without the faintest notion of what metadata was and made a prize dill of himself.

“Takes one to know one,” he said in response to my question. “I know you are but what am I? Your brain needs extra money and extra powers.”*

Conflation, he continued angrily, turning a shade of red the like of which hadn’t been seen since he tore up the dance floor at Michael Smith’s wedding. Quite what he meant by “conflation” wasn’t clear, but he certainly wasn’t going to offer any views on domestic violence. Perhaps he didn’t think domestic violence fell within his area of responsibilities, I thought. I decided to check. But no, his own department’s website has a “Family Violence” page, a Family Courts Violence Review report, which includes recommendations to increase funding in the family law system to reduce the risk of family violence. There used to be a page on family violence protection services, which is now 404d, but there’s also a section of the site devoted to the Family Violence Act.

Of course, like any good meal, My Lunch With George had to come to an end. Brandis jumped on his Freedom hawg, presumably to tool round the corner to his own department and tell them to get that domestic violence stuff taken down tout de suite, given he has no responsibility for it. The rest of us, however, needed no transportation, for we’d all been borne aloft on the sweet, sweet currents of freedom — and the best sort of freedom — freedom properly secured in an age of terrorism.

*May not be fully accurate transcription.

Peter Fray

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