ABC News Breakfast

Subject/s: Resignation of Justin Gleeson, Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.




Subject/s: Resignation of Justin Gleeson, Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI, HOST: We’re joined in the studio now by Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. Mark Dreyfus, good morning and thanks for your time.


TRIOLI: We’re going to get to what you think the Attorney-General should do in just a moment, because you’ve been very vocal about that, but let’s go to your role in this affair. You rang the Solicitor-General during the caretaker period. In a sense you exposed him to questions about his independence. And in your efforts then to get George Brandis, Justin Gleeson could be seen this morning as your collateral damage. Do you have any regrets?

DREYFUS: None whatsoever. What sort of country have we come to when a Member of Parliament, a front bench Member of Parliament, can’t ring a senior public servant and ask a couple of factual questions in the run up to the election, which is all that I did? The two questions I asked of Justin Gleeson were - and bear in mind that the Attorney-General had already tabled the document in Parliament, which is what I was asking about. He’d made an unprecedented change to the way in which the Solicitor-General goes about his job, and I asked Justin Gleeson “were you consulted?” and he said no. And I asked Justin Gleeson “do you personally approve of this Legal Services Direction in terms of what effect it will have on your job?” and he said no. And that was it.

TRIOLI:  And all of that has been covered recently in the Senate inquiry. But here’s the thing. As a smart, informed man, you know making a phone call during the caretaker period over a political hot potato like this, to the Solicitor-General, is political dynamite. And yet knowingly you did it. Did you not have any thought that ultimately you might be throwing the Solicitor-General under the bus by doing that?

DREYFUS: I am in no way responsible for this resignation.

TRIOLI:  You take no responsibility for the pass that we’re brought to now? None?


TRIOLI:  Your phone call. Your phone call Mark Dreyfus.

DREYFUS: Absolutely none.

TRIOLI: You sleep easy at night?

DREYFUS: I do, although I’m very, very sad to see the Solicitor-General go. The circumstances here were entirely created by George Brandis. It’s yet another disaster that he has created. I repeat, Virginia, there can be nothing wrong with a Member of Parliament asking some factual questions of the Solicitor-General, or any senior public servant.

I talk to senior public servants - surprise, surprise - this is a government which is terrified of criticism, that wants to run, it seems, some kind of police state where the senior public servants of this country have to ask permission of their minister before they talk to anybody. That is a ridiculous situation.

TRIOLI: Sure, but it’s interesting on that. We’ve heard some comments on that from former Solicitors-General, not everyone seems to agree. We’ve heard from former Solicitor-General Bob Ellicott there, but he went on to say something else. Independence does not mean the independence to go about and advise anybody. So, as chief legal counsel, that person has an obligation to try and make the system work, no matter what that system is. Correct?

DREYFUS: Of course. And…

TRIOLI: Well that’s exactly what Bob Ellicott is saying. So even though you want that independence, it’s not independence to go and willy-nilly advise anyone. And anyone who has been Solicitor-General here it seems understands that, except maybe for Justin Gleeson.

DREYFUS: We’ve got an Act of Parliament which actually says that the Solicitor-General’s job is to act as counsel for a whole range of government departments, for senior officials, for ministers. And no-one has ever suggested until George Brandis came along, that there should be a need for his written consent to be obtained before the Solicitor-General gives advice. I’m not alone in saying that. The former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, a former Solicitor-General himself, Sir Anthony Mason, says that that’s right, that George Brandis is wrong. All of the other Solicitors-General who have spoken about this, including particularly Dr Gavan Griffith, Solicitor-General for 14 years under Hawke, Keating and Howard, he says that George Brandis has got it wrong. Yet again we’ve got George Brandis blindly ploughing on, obstinately saying “I’m right and all of the rest of you are wrong.” Now, it’s about time that Malcolm Turnbull sacked him, before he does any more damage.

TRIOLI: We know you’ve been calling for that for some time. Leaving aside the sacking. Let’s assume that doesn’t happen, and if it does we can discuss that another time. What else do you think the Attorney-General has to do now to rebuild your trust in the office?

DREYFUS: Well for a start he can withdraw this Legal Services Direction which has caused all of this trouble in the first place.

TRIOLI: From your contacts in the legal world, you would have heard from people who would be prepared to be Solicitor-General, who would still be prepared to take on that role with this in place, correct?

DREYFUS: Well I’m hoping that a full field of eminent Australian lawyers are prepared to serve the Commonwealth as the 12th Solicitor-General in the hundred years that this office has been in existence. And unfortunately I think the field is going to be much reduced, because who would want to work with an Attorney-General like George Brandis who is not prepared to actually take independent advice, who is not prepared to accept an opinion, who thinks that a legal opinion is given which doesn’t suit his political purposes, he can ignore it, or sideline the Solicitor-General, which is what has come to light has in fact happened.

TRIOLI: Mark Dreyfus, we’ll have to leave it there shortly, so just moving onto another topic quickly if I can before I let you go. Bill Shorten has said that the Prime Minister is, quote: “just wishing Tony Abbott would go away.” You know and of course all of Labor knows that that just doesn’t happen. So if they want to avoid a Julia Gillard-Kevin Rudd fight to the death like you had on your side, what advice would you give them now?

DREYFUS: Well that’s a matter for them, but the…

TRIOLI: Given you’ve seen this end and know how it ends.

DREYFUS: The division is on full display. I noticed Arthur Sinodinos on Q&A last night refusing to rule out Tony Abbott coming back, and….

TRIOLI: He was taking the Kevin Rudd – Julia Gillard view of history.

DREYFUS: It’s entirely in Malcolm Turnbull’s hands. He’s got to stop being weak. He’s got to stop being indecisive, he’s got to start leading our country, and what we’re seeing repeatedly in the opinion polls, which Malcolm Turnbull says is the measure of a leader, is a reflection of the disastrous way in which he’s going about his job.

TRIOLI: Mark Dreyfus, good to talk to you, thank you.

DREYFUS: Thanks Virginia.

- ENDS -