George Brandis loves talking about language, he said last night. He owned, he claimed, both the first and second editions of the Oxford English Dictionary, which to us is a bit like enjoying both country and western. But the Attorney-General’s love for language is rather like that of a sadist who enjoys inflicting pain on the object of his love, and the torture to which he put ordinary English last night wouldn’t have been out of place in a lurid serial killer flick.

In 2016, the last time Brandis misled the Senate, over his failure to consult with the Solicitor-General when he claimed he had, he subjected the word “consult” to an extraordinary assault that completely altered its meaning. Now, Brandis has been revealed to have misled the Senate again in his lengthy November explanation of his involvement in the West Australian government’s attempt to dud Commonwealth taxpayers over the Bell Group matter. So he again donned the latex gloves and pulled out the pliers to torture the language.

Brandis’ problem is that in November in his Bell explanation, he told the Senate, very clearly, about WA Attorney-General Michael Mischin: 

“My first conversation with Mr Mischin, which also involved Dr Nahan, was at about midday eastern time the following day, Friday 4 March …”

But Mischin says he spoke to Brandis about it in early February. Open and shut case, surely? Now, compared to the Justin Gleeson saga, this is pretty minor stuff. Brandis, having obviously caught colleague Senator Arthur Sinodinos’ amnesia problem, says he didn’t recall the conversation, so presumably he’d simply ‘fess up, say sorry and acknowledge his error, right?

Except, Brandis doesn’t make errors. He is Australia’s greatest living jurist — indeed, possibly the world’s greatest jurist, a name to equate with Solon, Grotius, Brandeis (no relation, sadly) and Blackstone. And by all the deities to be found in the OED, he was not admitting any error here.

[George Brandis and the struggle for competence]

When Legal and Constitutional Committee chair Ian Macdonald ran out of excuses for preventing the Bell Group matter from being discussed at estimates last night, Brandis explained that, in his November statement, he used the words “I recall” before referring to his first conversation with Mischin. Not at the start of the relevant sentence, or even of the previous sentence, but seven sentences and over 200 words before.

Brandis even attacked Hansard for putting in paragraph breaks in his turgid explanation, making it look as though the relevant “I recall” was even further away than it actually was.

The Senate was supposed to infer, Brandis insisted, that the words “I recall” applied to everything that came afterward — and it was for “stylistic” reasons that he had not included those words regularly in his statement to remind the Senate that all of this was to the best of his recollection.

Stylistic reasons.

You could tell, however, that even Brandis knew that this was a particularly lame piece of sophistry. In the face of constant laughter and questioning from Labor’s Penny Wong and Murray Watt, and the Greens’ Nick McKim, his shiny pate went bright red, his voice went up half an octave, and he interjected during questions so often and so shrilly that even chair Ian Macdonald was forced to pull him into line.

“Can you feel the ice cracking beneath you senator?” McKim asked a near-hysterical Brandis at one point.

In the long list of Brandis’ stuff-ups, this one is frankly almost trivial. But it’s yet another indication of how the sooner the government can dispatch this woeful politician to London, the better. Although that’s assuming that he hasn’t so blotted his copybook that the Prime Minister now thinks he’s too damaged to dispatch into diplomatic retirement — which is a rumour now doing the rounds here in Parliament.

Peter Fray

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