Off Brandis

George Brandis still holds out hope – apparently – that he will be appointed to the bench of the High Court. The move would come – in his mind – early next year. He would follow the controversial precedents of Garfield Barwick and Lionel Murphy.

It is worth considering this as the calls mount for Brandis to resign as attorney-general. It is worth considering this as it appears increasingly that he misled the parliament.

“We have Senator George Brandis now lying about lying,” shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said this week.

“The second law officer, Justin Gleeson, the solicitor-general, has put beyond doubt, for anyone that cares to read his submission, that the attorney-general of Australia has misled the parliament. He should resign, and if he won’t resign, he should be sacked.”

At issue are conversations leading to Brandis’s decision to prevent others seeking advice from the solicitor-general without first clearing his office. This on its own is an offensive perversion of the solicitor-general’s role. But it has been made worse.

Notes released by Gleeson suggest Brandis has misrepresented a meeting between the two. They also show Brandis misrepresented to the public advice he had received from the solicitor-general on legal matters.

As attorney-general first appointed by Tony Abbott, Brandis sat in a government that disrespected the rule of law like none since Federation. A government that frequently abused process and toyed with presumptions of innocence. 

This is the same attorney-general who defunded environmental defenders offices and cut millions from community law centres. Who presided over policies that ensured the widening of what the Productivity Commission called a “justice gap” in Australia.

This is the attorney-general who defended the “right to be bigots” for Australians. Who proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act so cavalier and overreaching they would have legalised hate crime.

This is the same attorney-general who was forced to pay back $1683 in public money after he used it to attend the wedding of shock jock Michael Smith. The same Michael Smith who was later dumped by 2GB for calling the prophet Muhammad a paedophile.

This is the attorney-general who could not describe the metadata he sought to arbitrarily collect, that he wished to access without warrant. “The, the, the web address, um, is, is part of the metadata… It, it, it tells you the address of the website…”

This is the attorney-general who was made silk while in office, despite his name being absent from the Queensland Bar Association’s shortlist. Who sat back during senate estimates and read from a collection of bush poetry rather than listening to the questioning of Department of Foreign Affairs secretary Peter Varghese. Who spent $20,000 on bookshelves for his office.

This is the attorney-general who as arts minister pursued a personal vendetta to pervert funding arrangements, a campaign against artists that is only now being repaired.

This is the attorney-general who spent untold government money defending his diary against a freedom of information request, only to lose the case on a legal point.

This is the attorney-general who bullied the president of the Human Rights Commission and attempted to force her from her post, who nakedly interfered with her independence.

George Brandis has made his office unduly political. In it, he has shown no legal dexterity. 

Irrespective of whether Brandis misled parliament, the question for Malcolm Turnbull remains: Should this attorney-general have been in the role at all?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 8, 2016 as "Off Brandis".

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