Attorney-General George Brandis has finally done something to earn that coveted London gig. Yesterday’s humiliation was so profound, so abject, that it’s hard to recall anything similar.
Not merely — as long rumoured — was his effort to prevent the stripping from his portfolio of national security functions unsuccessful — they would now be transferred, wholesale, to Peter Dutton’s vast new empire. And not merely was he required, for the sake of political appearances, to join the prime minister at the ensuing media conference to utter his support for the changes. He was obliged to explain, in detail, exactly why it was a great idea that he lose some of his most important functions.
Talk about taking one for the team. And this was a bullet fired straight at Brandis’ most sensitive spot, his hypertrophied ego.
You can imagine Turnbull quietly telling his Attorney-General “listen George, a pro forma declaration of support from you won’t be good enough — we’re going to have to offer an explanation of why this is a good idea. You’re going to have to offer it.” Perhaps the Prime Minister noted that he and his colleagues had had to offer similar convoluted clean-up attempts when Brandis himself had stuffed up. Or perhaps that went, politely, unsaid.
The humiliation was not yet complete, however. For any argument that the Attorney-General’s portfolio needed to lose some major functions obviously would prompt the question as to what was wrong with the current arrangements. So the line settled upon was that losing all his national security functions would allow Brandis to focus on his primary duty of ensuring the rule of law. Sadly, he lamented, his other responsibilities as first law officer had not been able to give his full attention to national security:
“much though my focus has been on national security, it has not been able to be an exclusive focus. There are always other things within the Attorney-General’s portfolio which also occupy my attention.”
So, wait — according to Brandis, he’s been too busy with, as he himself put it, “the administration of and recruitment to the courts… government information, including the Freedom of Information Act and the Archives Act” to focus fully on national security? Why didn’t he say something years ago? And how have previous Attorneys-General been able to handle both national security and other legal issues at the same time? What have been the material consequences for our national security of Brandis being distracted by the Archives Act and FOI?
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For a moment, as Brandis paused uncertainly while delivering such peculiar remarks, one was tempted to feel a skerrick of sympathy for him. But the temptation didn’t last long.
Brandis has been given the tiniest of fig leaves for his embarrassment — some intelligence oversight functions and the Ombudsman’s office will be shifted into his portfolio. This is to bolster the idea that the Attorney-General will somehow have a strengthened watchdog role on national security — the Archives Act permitting, of course. As part of that, Brandis will continue to sign off on the warrants required for the exercise of many Australian Federal Police and ASIO powers — which will save some poor draughtsperson some serious cutting and pasting at the Office of Parliamentary Counsel.
But, The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy asked, how would that work — would ASIO and the AFP have to brief both the Home Affairs minister and the AG? Turnbull blathered in response, apparently not having thought that through. “Plainly, the agencies — you know, if you like, the operational detail of this is going be worked through very carefully by the task group that I have described.”
Perhaps his mind was on other things. Like what he would have to give Brandis for making him engage in such a remarkable spectacle of humiliation.