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George Brandis

It’s a small matter, but yesterday the Senate committee examining Attorney-General George Brandis’ direction giving himself veto power over access to Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson posted Brandis’ submission. (Remember, Brandis issued a direction in May this year preventing the Solicitor-General from providing any advice within government except with the A-G’s explicit approval. Brandis says Gleeson consulted on the direction and gave it the green light. But Gleeson has proven he most certainly did not.)

It’s a riposte to Gleeson’s utterly damning account of Brandis’ failure to consult him in developing the direction, but it attaches handwritten meeting notes that actually confirm exactly what Gleeson told the committee. The matter of a legal direction was airily mentioned at the start of a meeting last November, but only in the context of the framework of how the use of the Solicitor-General was regulated within government; the actual preparation and issue of a direction of any kind, let alone the one that Brandis tried to impose in May this year, is signally absent from the notes.

But included among other attachments to Brandis’ submission, right before the meeting notes, is Gleeson’s letter that initiated the meeting. Gleeson had already provided the letter to the committee, with some minor redactions, in his submission. Now Brandis provides the same letter — but Brandis has excised vast slabs of it. Fully three-quarters of the letter are whited out, including an entire page. Not merely does Brandis’ own submission verify Gleeson’s damning evidence against him, but the Attorney-General goes to the effort of taking the Liquid Paper to a letter that has already been made public, virtually in full, days earlier.

It’s another example of how almost everything that George Brandis touches turns to shit. And not just on legal matters — Brandis’ pretensions to being a jurist are a matter of ridicule within the profession — but on political matters. Here’s an exhausting, if not necessarily exhaustive, list of stuff-ups by Brandis since becoming Attorney-General:

  • Single-handedly blew up the Abbott government’s proposal to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act by declaring “people have the right to be bigots” in Parliament;
  • Backflipped on his previous opposition to data retention and, lacking a basic understanding of how web browsing works, conducting a disastrous interview so awful it helped David Speers win a Walkley;
  • Inflicted major damage on the arts sector by removing more than $100 million from arts funding to set up his own personal fund, before being dumped as arts minister by Malcolm Turnbull;
  • Declared Islamic State to be an “existential threat” to Australia;
  • Lost his counter-terrorism responsibility to Michael Keenan;
  • Launched an ASIO raid on Witness K, the former ASIS officer who, following advice from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, revealed the Australian Secret Intelligence Service’s illegal bugging of the East Timorese cabinet, and demanded the prosecution of K and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery;
  • Slashed funding for community legal centres, insisting the cuts were aimed at stopping “policy reform advocacy”, then tried to obscure the cuts in references to global legal funding, before partially restoring some of the cuts late in the election campaign;
  • Claimed Edward Snowden had placed Australian lives at risk, but when challenged was unable to produce evidence for it;
  • Tried — using his departmental secretary — to encourage Gillian Triggs to resign from the Australian Human Rights Commission by offering her an international job, then denied he’d ever done so despite the evidence of his secretary; and
  • Appointed a donor to his own party to a judicial position, one who had defended Brandis’ son in court.

Brandis has also continued a failing of attorneys-general before him of being unable, or unwilling, to force his own department to carry out basic functions effectively. Most notoriously, his department ignored a letter from Man Haron Monis, sent to Brandis himself (which, correctly, his office referred to the department), which could have raised serious concerns about his radicalisation in the week before the Sydney siege.

The department then “accidentally” failed to alert the government’s own in-house review of the handling of the siege to the letter, omitting it from documents provided to the inquiry. Worse, it then misled Brandis himself, and caused Julie Bishop to mislead the House of Representatives, that the letter had been given to the inquiry, and remained aware that Parliament had been misled and failed to act despite senior officials in other departments raising concerns. Such incompetence — to be charitable — becomes understandable when one bears in mind AGD’s long history of bungling on data retention both under Brandis and his predecessors.

The strong theme of this long list of bungles — apart from the obvious lack of competence on show — is Brandis’ political tin ear. Not merely is Brandis a poor lawyer (not necessarily a problem in being Attorney-General), but far more fatally, he is a bad politician, almost Mr Magoo-like in his ability to cause havoc around him while seeming to remain oblivious to the wreckage he has made of the government’s image or plans. There’s a reason why John Howard kept Brandis away from ministerial office for as long as possible, and Brandis has illustrated it on multiple occasions.

There are probably better lawyers than Brandis within the Coalition, but there are certainly many better politicians. In calling for his sacking for misleading Parliament, Labor should be careful what it wishes for — it would be a blessing for the government.

Peter Fray

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