774 ABC Radio Interview

Subjects: George Brandis's attack on the Solicitor-General; Jo Cox.


FRIDAY, 17 JUNE 2016

SUBJECTS: George Brandis's attack on the Solicitor-General; Jo Cox.

JON FAINE, HOST: Attorney-General George Brandis has issued a directive to the Solicitor-General, the chief government lawyer, and the department that he heads, which provides legal advice to Parliament, politicians and the government, that all legal advice for the government is effectively to go through him. George Brandis has been asked questions about this but the Financial Review today publishes information that suggests Brandis may have misled the Parliament, and the Solicitor-General has in some way also been dragged into this. It’s a most serious allegation and one that we invited Senator Brandis to respond to on this program this morning. We contacted the Attorney-General and the Liberal Party and Senator Brandis has declined our invitation to appear. However not so reluctant is the shadow and former Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus QC from the Labor Party. Mark Dreyfus good morning to you.


FAINE: Let’s do this from the beginning. What is the directive that the Attorney has issued to the Solicitor-General?

DREYFUS: It’s part of a Legal Services Direction which is a formal document Jon that has to be laid before the Parliament and is in fact disallowable by Parliament. This Direction has…the Legal Services Direction has been amended by the Attorney-General in an unprecedented way to require that government departments, government agencies, like the Australian Taxation Office - who up until now have been able to seek in effect the independent advice of the Solicitor-General, who is the second-most senior law officer in the government, the first law officer being the Attorney-General - up until now they’ve been able to give that independent advice. From now on, according to Senator Brandis’s Direction, they’ll have to go through him. They’ll have to get the permission of the Attorney-General to get any advice from the Solicitor-General.

FAINE: And this includes the Prime Minister, or the Governor-General or anyone else?

DREYFUS: The Governor-General is a particularly alarming example, in a constitutional crisis absolutely the Governor-General needs to be able to go straight to the Solicitor-General and get advice, and often there will be political aspects to it, he won’t want to go through the Attorney-General. From now on, according to George Brandis the Governor-General himself or the Prime Minister would have to go through George Brandis to get advice [from the Solicitor-General]. It’s without precedent, it’s an attack on the independence that’s been there for around 100 years of the Solicitor-General…since this office was created. And it’s definitely to the detriment of good government in Australia.

FAINE: It reminds me of the Bjelke-Petersen era question to the-then Premier of Queensland, what is it that you understand to be the separation of powers under the Westminster system? Mark, it goes that far back doesn’t it? So what we need to understand from Senator Brandis is also a response, and he’s declined to join us this morning, a response to the allegation in the paper this morning that he has misled the Parliament as well. And what’s the substance to that?

DREYFUS: That’s extraordinarily serious Jon. The account in the Financial Review today actually means that in my opinion the PM should be asking for Senator Brandis’s resignation as Attorney-General. He is the first law officer of Australia. Of all the ministers who should be upholding the rule of law, who should be upholding the proper procedures of the Parliament and telling the truth to the Parliament, it’s this minister. And unfortunately the account in the Financial Review today discloses that he has lied to the Parliament. He has said that he has consulted with the Solicitor-General, is required to do so before making this Legal Services Direction, and according to the account in the Financial Review he has not done so. The former Solicitor-General of Queensland Walter Sofronoff was quoted in the story saying that the guidelines are invalid simply because he didn’t talk to the Solicitor-General properly. Worse than that, it appears from the story that Senator Brandis directed senior officials from the Attorney-General’s Department who were all involved in the process of putting together an amended Direction, were told not to talk to the Solicitor-General. So far from there having been proper consultation with the Solicitor-General about this matter, it’s the reverse. It’s been hidden from the Solicitor-General, it’s disgraceful conduct from the Attorney-General and I would say again the Prime Minister should be demanding his resignation today.

FAINE: At the worst you can say it’s a hanging offense, at the best it’s political overreach and a bit of a control freak moment by Senator Brandis in which case surely we just overlook it and put it behind us and say well no, that’s not supposed to happen that way.

DREYFUS: On the contrary, it’s actually very serious. It’s consistent with the way in which Senator Brandis has operated as Attorney-General since the change of Government and yet again he has demonstrated that he is not fit to be Attorney-General of the Commonwealth. It’s a very serious matter. The actual substance of the Direction is just as serious because we will all be the poorer for senior government officials, secretaries of departments, independent agencies, not being able to seek the independent advice of the Solicitor-General. That’s a very sad day.

FAINE: Separately a moment ago we were talking to Alexander Downer, Australia’s High Commissioner in London and a former senior minister and Opposition Leader about the outbreak of hate crime, assaults, attacks, vicious commentary and the like, and now of course the death of an MP in England. Have you ever seen as uncivil a campaign as this one?

DREYFUS: We’ve got a long tradition in Australia, Jon of robust - but I would hope respectful - political debate. I don’t want to see that change, I agree with people who have been commenting this morning saying that social media, with its anonymity or lack of face-to-face contact seems somehow to lead to extraordinary rudeness and hateful speech. I hope that it stops, that the dreadful event in Britain, the murder of a British MP, and all of our hearts go out to her family and everyone there – let’s hope it is some kind of wake-up call that there is no place in political democracies such as ours for hate speech, for personal abuse. We want to talk about policies, let’s try and all do that.

FAINE: Thank you for your time on those matters this morning and the invitation to Senator Brandis, the Attorney-General, still stands.