“I said to them, how on Earth could it have been that in the period coming up to the 4th of May, you must’ve known about this direction, you were helping draft it, the Parliamentary Counsel knew about it, the attorney knew about it, his staff knew about it. “How on Earth could it have been that the one person who needed to know wasn’t told?”
Break out the brandy and cigars. There’ll be chest-beating and drinks all round at the exclusive, all-male Savage Club a refuge where member George Brandis can kick back and forget his responsibility as Attorney-General to uphold anti-discrimination laws. Megalomaniac Brandis, a cane-toad in pin-stripes from the deep North, a legal giant who got his QC only after arriving in Canberra, has got his way at last. Forget the constitution. Forget justice. What matter is that Brandis rules thanks to his cunning plan to remove the Solicitor General, Justin Gleeson, a highly regarded, constitutional expert and independent legal advisor. All that remains, now, is to get a Liberal lickspittle to replace him.
Gleeson’s dismissal has not been achieved directly, of course, the Solicitor-General is a tenured public servant. Or was. Nor has his stitching up been easy. It has taken effort to make it impossible for the Solicitor General to continue to offer independent, expert legal advice that looked to the law rather than flattering the government and its power-mad, accident-prone, incompetent Attorney General. In the end, boys-club Brandis simply over-reached his authority in May. Imperiously, he directed that all requests for Gleeson’s legal expertise to come through his office first — a matter Gleeson was not consulted on beyond the idea being “raised” in a November meeting.
All that remained, then was to pretend Gleeson was consulted and when an inquiry arose Coalition bovver boys, Senators Ian Macdonald and Barry O’Sullivan could take the SG out the back and give him a good working over. They, too, must be so proud of themselves, now. It’s a win for the bullies. The dismissal has been achieved the Brandis way, using the sort of bastardry applied to Gillian Triggs to remove her dissenting, independent self from the head of the Human Rights Commission last year.
Gleeson, like Triggs, is accused of being political. How dare either of them offer criticism or expert, independent advice to a born to rule government’s right to ride roughshod over human rights or the nation’s constitution?
Spin doctors in damage control now have MPs bucketing Justin Gleeson for talking to Mark Dreyfus during an election campaign – as if this is an act of treason or a betrayal of office. Put this behind us and move on is the line heard on ABC Radio from MPs spruiking today’s Coalition talking points – after they trivialise and put the boot in. Nothing to see here. Nobody will believe the Attorney General who overreached himself and misled parliament.
Dreyfus rang Gleeson to ask him if he thought he had been consulted and if he was happy to be sidelined, he explains. Gleeson gives an honest no. For this, Macdonald tells him he ought to enter politics directly. Gleeson says he also gave Malcolm Turnbull legal confidential advice in January but this seems to attract no comment. What is needed now is for the former SG to be demonised for his outrageous political intervention.
Anyone who saw the treatment meted out to Triggs in February 2015 when the President of the Commission was also falsely accused of being politically partisan would recognise the shameless, relentless and misogynistic bullying.
“I thought you might like to hear a man’s voice” boomed Queensland Senator Barry O’Sullivan last year, randomly interrupting the senate estimates hearing for no other purpose than to make a sexist tool of himself. At other times, he and Ian MacDonald barked at women senators. Undismayed by such boorish bully-boy antics – and giving them his tacit approval, Brandis said he had no confidence in Triggs. He wanted rid of any critic of his government’s glorious policy of locking up children indefinitely in offshore hell-holes to punish them for not drowning at sea.
Gleeson also gets the Macdonald – O’Sullivan treatment in a senate committee just over a week ago – a hearing which was delayed as Macdonald sought to have the hearing held in camera – or behind closed doors, aka “out the back”. Scrupulously impartial and fastidious with regard to procedure, Macdonald declares at the outset that the senate inquiry is an “absolute waste of time”.
Despite the hazing, Gleeson demonstrates calmly and capably that Brandis misled the Australian Parliament. Macdonald does his best to treat the SC with utter contempt – as he did when he told Gillian Triggs he had not even bothered to read her magisterial Forgotten Children report. Why would he? He knew it was biased. Way to go Macca. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a reputation-trashing. Macdonald cuts off Gleeson three times and when cautioned by the chair says he always gives witnesses “the respect they deserve”.
Disrespect is modelled by Brandis. Not only has the Solicitor-General’s office been side-lined by Brandis’ naked power grab, he has also had his advice ignored and misrepresented as when Brandis lied to the house that the Solicitor-General had backed the legal land mine that resulted from the Brandis’ decision to rush up a law to appease his then PM, Tony Abbott, another Liberal who likes to play fast and loose with the rule of law, who wanted to score political points by threatening to strip dual nationals of their citizenship.
Brandis’ first attempt was an unworkable mess. It was reviewed by the circus known as The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is currently chaired by deadly Dan Tehan who daily, it would seem finds new evidence of fiendish terror plots against us to report. The second draft attracted no fewer than 27 recommendations for change.
As it is the law contains the legal fiction in section 33AA revocation of your citizenship just happens if you do something which might roughly be some sort of breach of the criminal code – unless you happen to be in Australia at the time of your offence to vaguely defined provisions in the criminal code, subject to one exception. Worse, it appears that it could be construed as a punishment and beyond the authority of the executive arm of government. No wonder the AG is a bit sensitive to criticism.
Brandis has acted illegally in demanding that all those who seek the solicitor general’s advice must come via the Attorney-General. In the words of a former solicitor General and Howard legal advisor, Gavan Griffith, the direction is not only unlawful, it would reduce the SG’s independence to that of a dog on a leash. Brandis has also lied about having consulted Gleeson as to his intentions, despite much unedifying quibbling from the Pettifogger General over the definition of consultation, a matter he is prepared to settle, like a schoolboy debater, with a dictionary definition.
In fact he is wrong at law about consultation, just as he over-stepped his authority in demanding control over the solicitor general’s office. There are grounds to accept that the term is used legally to mean something more than just “raising an issue” telling another party what you intend to do – after you have done it.
Brandis has an issue with consultation. As Arts Minister for an Abbott government which did not have an arts policy, much less have much time for such matters, he simply made up his own, not deigning to consult with the arts community before reducing arts grants to create his own award for excellence, which quickly became known as the George Brandis slush fund. His unwillingness to release his electronic diary to corroborate his claim that he met with representative has now cost taxpayers $50, 000 under FOI challenges and appeals.
Brandis’ power grab has been simplified by a media dedicated to preserving us from complexity to a personal spat between the two men, ignoring the constitutional issues involved and reducing the Attorney-General’s high-handed arrogance to a clash of personalities – or even more disingenuously – a fight between two leading lawyers. Gleeson may be a top silk. Brandis is not. A pettifogging legal piss-ant with monumental delusions of grandeur, his officious bungling and over-reach of his authority will continue to create crises for himself and his government. He is almost certain to be censured when the senate committee concludes its inquiry in a few weeks.
In the meantime the saga of Brandis’ war on his Solicitor General reveals a Coalition of petty despotism, convinced of its own infallibility, immune to criticism and contemptuous of due process, happy to misrepresent itself in its determination to impose its will at all costs; its desperate desire to silence its critics whatever it takes.