Just hours ahead of the certain disallowance of his controversial “direction” restricting access to the solicitor-general, Attorney-General George Brandis yesterday repealed it. It was a humiliating conclusion to a deeply damaging episode that has already led to the solicitor-general’s resignation, and Brandis coming under fire from all sides.
The direction prevented anyone, including the prime minister and the governor-general, from seeking advice from the solicitor-general without the explicit approval of the attorney-general.
In the wake of the this week’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs references committee report that found Brandis had misled Parliament over the direction, the disallowance of the direction by the Senate was a foregone conclusion, given the minor parties and the Greens backed Labor.
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The direction, first issued by Brandis in May was savaged by former solicitor-general Gavan Griffith in a submission to that inquiry as directly infringing the independence of the position, which is intended to be the second law officer of the Commonwealth after the Attorney-General and the source of binding advice and precedent within government. Solicitor-general Justin Gleeson resigned due to the breakdown of his relationship with Brandis, who was the subject of internal criticism from party colleagues for his poor handling of the issue.
When he first issued the direction, Brandis told the Senate in writing he had consulted with Gleeson on it, a claim later shown to be untrue. Brandis insists that a conversation he had with Gleeson last November, which did not mention a new direction and which occurred before he had considered issuing any new direction, was “consultation” as required under the relevant act.
Brandis issued no statement about the repeal, but admitted in question time that this time he had consulted the acting solicitor-general, who apparently (like Justin Gleeson) thought the repeal was a good idea. And why had he repealed his own direction? Brandis had decided, he said, that “when the new Solicitor-General came into office, which will be very soon, that he should begin, as it were, with a clean slate.”
Well at least we know the new Solicitor-General will be a male.