George Brandis has added to his remarkable reputation for stuffing up virtually everything he touches with yesterday’s admission that the letter that Sydney siege perpetrator Man Haron Monis sent to him just weeks before the tragedy that cost two lives wasn’t considered by the government’s in-house inquiry into the siege, conducted jointly with the Baird government in NSW.
The particular delight attaching to Brandis’ bungles is always the bloviation and bluster he brings to their performance. So it was with the Monis letter. On Tuesday last week, Brandis drew himself up to his full height and sternly rebuked shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus for daring to ask questions about why Monis’ letter to Brandis, in which the convicted extremist asked whether it would be OK if he contacted Islamic State, had been given a pro forma response by his department and not referred to ASIO or the AFP.
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Dreyfus, Brandis said in a statement titled “Dreyfus’s Cheap Shot“, had been “asleep at the wheel” and “weak” on national security as attorney-general. His questions were a “contemptible” “attempt to politicise the Martin Place siege”. Brandis said he had now passed the letter to Duncan Lewis, the head of ASIO. “He told me that, in his view, since the letter was a request for legal advice, it seems appropriate to him that the matter was referred to the Attorney-General’s Department.”
Whether ASIO might have liked to have seen the letter before the siege, not several months after it, remained undiscussed by the Attorney-General.
Oh, and then this:
“The letter, and my Department’s reply, were both placed before the Inquiry into the Martin Place siege conducted by the Secretaries of the Prime Minister’s and NSW Premier’s Departments. Their report did not have any criticism of the way with which the Monis letter was dealt.”
Of course the report had no criticisms to make. Because the letter was never given to the inquiry, despite Brandiss claims, despite telling the Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee that it was, despite Julie Bishop saying the same thing — based on advice from Brandis’ department — to Parliament.
Last night at eight minutes past six, out came a “Statement From the Attorney-General“.
“On Monday afternoon my office was advised by the Attorney-General’s Department that it appeared that their advice that the letter from Man Haron Monis of 7 October 2014 and the Department’s reply had been provided to the Thawley-Comley review, was wrong. I then had a meeting with the Secretary of my Department Mr Moraitis, and asked him to conduct an urgent inquiry within the Department to establish the facts.”
Moraitis, readers will recall, is the secretary who conveniently “lost” his notes from meetings relating to the offer of a job to Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs.
Strangely, Moraitis’ “urgent inquiry” took until “early” Thursday afternoon to finish, during which time Parliament and the public remained misled by the government. Brandis’ announcement came as Parliament rose for a week. It was all his department’s fault, Brandis insisted, for telling him the letter had been referred to the inquiry. On this, we can sympathise with Brandis, since over recent years we’ve catalogued the many problems of AGD.
“I have also received a copy of today’s letter to the Prime Minister from Mr Michael Thawley,” Brandis added, “which was tabled in the House of Representatives by Ms Bishop. That letter states that the Monis letter ‘would have made no difference to the findings in the review.'” So, that’s twice now that key officials have been shown the letter after the fact and asked whether they think it might have made a difference in retrospect.
It’s amusing watching Brandis play Malvolio in the low comedy that is this government, and deeply hypocritical for the Coalition to be attacking Labor for being soft on terrorism. But the more serious point is this: the inquiry into the Sydney siege should not have been an in-house, desktop exercise conducted by Michael Thawley and Blair Comley. As Labor’s Anthony Byrne said at the time, it should have been a genuinely independent inquiry with proper powers to obtain all relevant documents. Contrary to what the government appears to believe, national security and terrorism are more than just tools with which to wedge your opponents.