This morning Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs, speaking before Senate estimates, confirmed reports that the Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, Chris Moraitis, had asked her on behalf of Attorney-General George Brandis to resign from her position.

Senior statutory appointees fall out with governments, and new governments like to replace appointees with their own; there is nothing new in a government wanting to remove an appointee but being frustrated that his or her statutory term does not end for several years. Why Brandis, the oleaginous Brisbane lawyer who has constantly proven a poor performer even by the Abbott government’s lamentable standards, didn’t have the courage to pick up the phone to Triggs himself rather than dispatch a public servant to  convey his resignation request is perhaps something for the Attorney-General to explain.

The more serious matter is that Triggs also confirmed this morning that Moraitis had linked the request that she resign to an offer of further Commonwealth legal work. This is an extraordinarily serious statement. To seek to influence a Commonwealth public official in the exercise of their duties by offering a benefit is a clear breach of the Commonwealth Criminal Code, carrying a five-year prison sentence.

A clearly uncomfortable Moraitis this morning claimed that he had merely conveyed to Triggs the Attorney-General’s lack of confidence in her, in response to her own request for Brandis’ views. Under questioning, however, Moraitis subsequently acknowledged that “resignation was an option” in that discussion. Moreover, he admitted that he advised Triggs that a “senior” legal position would be made available to her — a peculiar thing to say to someone you haven’t asked to resign.

Moraitis must stand aside while an Australian Federal Police investigation is undertaken into what may turn out to be a simple misunderstanding, or something far more serious. Brandis’ role in it must also be investigated, but for the moment it is the head of the Attorney-General’s Department who is in the hot seat.