George Brandis
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Of all the Coalition’s jobs for the boys in recent times, the appointment of George Brandis, the Abbott and Turnbull government’s buffoonish attorney-general, to the position of High Commissioner to the UK was the most egregious. The position has gone from being a sinecure to which both sides could readily appoint former politicians — Mike Rann and Alexander Downer held it consecutively earlier this decade — to a more demanding position in light of Brexit and the United Kingdom’s quest for a new economic position in the world.

Brandis — who did himself no favours by mocking Labor’s Mark Dreyfus in his valedictory speech in the Senate — is the most likely of the Coalition’s nepotees to be given the flick by Labor if it wins government. Joe Hockey in Washington has been badly damaged by his poor judgment in the Helloworld affair, but has otherwise done a good job of engaging with the Trump administration — even if Trump doesn’t know his name. Then again Trump doesn’t know Tim Cook’s name either.

Aware that the government looks likely to lose in May, Brandis decided to try to make the case for his retention on the weekend, claiming that he knew Theresa May and that “nobody else can say that in Australia. In London and in Washington you have to be somebody who can be on first name terms with senior cabinet ministers in the UK — a former cabinet minister can do that.” 

Putting aside that May may not be Prime Minister for much longer, Brandis’ public advertising to keep his own job was an extraordinary lapse in judgment even by his own terrible standards. Brandis has declared that any successor to him will be self-evidently inferior to himself. What is the UK government supposed to think of a High Commissioner who says such things in public, or of any replacement who comes after him? And what is his minister, Marise Payne, supposed to think? Is it now acceptable that ambassadors and high commissioners publicly lobby for their jobs ahead of elections? That’s the standard Brandis has now set for the future, unless his behaviour is rebuked by the government.

But there’s also the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct to consider. Brandis may like to talk about himself as a former cabinet minister, but these days he’s a mere public servant — a Band 3 SES officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs. As such, he’s bound by the Public Service Code of Conduct — indeed, as an SES officer, he’s expected to be exemplary in his adherence to and promotion of APS Values and the Code. 

According to the Code, public servants must “not improperly use inside information or the employee’s duties, status, power or authority: (a) to gain, or seek to gain, a benefit or an advantage for the employee or any other person.” Except, Brandis may have done exactly that by quoting a private conversation between Theresa May and an unidentified individual to support his retention of the job.

Moreover, Brandis must “while on duty overseas, at all times behave in a way that upholds the good reputation of Australia”. How does having Australia’s senior diplomatic representative publicly assuming his own government will be defeated and begging his former political opponents to let him keep the gig uphold our good reputation? It’s embarrassing and unprofessional.

Public servants back in Canberra are regularly hauled over the coals for far less than Brandis’ distasteful mendicancy. If he wants to beg for his job privately, he’s welcome to do it — although if he wants to talk directly to Penny Wong he’ll have to obtain the permission of his departmental secretary; public servants aren’t normally allowed to go and talk to the opposition.

But if he wanted to demonstrate exactly why, if Labor wins, he should be put on the next flight back home, he found an excellent way to do it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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