George Brandis

As Crikey noted yesterday, it’s certainly not the government’s fault that Bob Day, whose long-cherished ambition of a political career has ended after just over two years in a fascinating constitutional flame-out, was careless about his eligibility to be in the Senate. But inevitably — like a tottering toddler drawn to the most dangerous object in the room — Attorney-General George Brandis yesterday managed to blunder into the issue and elevate concerns that the government found it very convenient to ignore the problem of Day having a financial relationship with the Commonwealth.

It wasn’t quite the Speers data retention car wreck, but Brandis’ effort on 7.30 last night raised a bright red flag over the Day affair, when his job — to the extent that Brandis has even a basic understanding of what politics is about — was to address concerns about what the government knew about Day and when it knew it.

Instead of offering a coherent, plausible explanation of how the government — the government of which Brandis has been a cabinet member and Attorney-General since 2013 — handled the tangled saga of Bob Day’s office location and its implications for his financial relationship with the Commonwealth, Brandis declared he didn’t know and didn’t care enough to find out, until recent days. Asked about how the issue was handled in 2014, Brandis declared: “I’m not familiar with that. I wasn’t the minister at the time. I have got no knowledge at all.”

Well, at least the last part was correct.

[Day of the (politically) dead: when did the government know?]

Nor had he bothered, given he was to be interviewed about it, to find out. “I have no knowledge at all of what the Finance Department may have done in 2014 … whatever happened in 2014 involving the special minister of state is not something about which I can speak.”

Well who could?

“The special minister of state in December of last year had been former senator Ronaldson, who of course is now retired.”

Actually, George, Michael Ronaldson by that stage hadn’t been special minister of state for three months — he lost the job after Turnbull rolled Abbott. Mal Brough was the special minister of state in December, at least until the end of that month, when he stood aside and Mathias Cormann, the Coalition’s go-to man for doing two jobs at once, acted for him, which he did until the election.

Brandis was having none of that fact-based nonsense, however. “I can’t tell you what passed between former senator Ronaldson and his department in December of last year.”

[Oh precious Day! Ex-senator’s persnicketiness could cost Turnbull a key vote]

It’s perhaps understandable that Brandis wants to airbrush his erstwhile colleague Mal Brough from the history of the government, but it’s remarkable that the Attorney-General’s “I don’t know” act extends to not knowing who his ministerial colleagues were less than a year ago. Especially one from his own state.

And it’s also remarkable that Brandis, or anyone else in the government, wasn’t aware of potential problems with Day’s eligibility. But Day was a friendly, a former Liberal who could be virtually guaranteed to vote with the government despite his crossbench status. If Day had been a Labor senator, or a Palmer United Party senator, or anyone else perceived as hostile, the question of his eligibility would have erupted long before now. Brandis and Ronaldson/Brough/Cormann would have been up him for the rent. Instead, they waited til Day got up them for the rent before querying the situation.

If Day hadn’t pursued the issue of rent, prompting newly installed SMOS Scott Ryan to pursue the matter, how long would this studied lack of curiosity on the part of the government persisted? Long enough to ensure the passage of the ABCC bills, perhaps.

Brandis’ performance of obfuscation was telling in ways that this remarkably unself-aware man probably doesn’t quite realise. He didn’t know. And the government didn’t want to know, because it didn’t suit it to know. At the very best, Day got the mates’ rates treatment on scrutiny. After Brandis’ performance last night, the possibility that it was something worse than that has only increased.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.