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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 8478


Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (19:01): I want to say a few words about the annual report of the Australian Government Solicitor. In particular, I wanted to refer to the appearance of the Australian Government Solicitor and officers of the Australian Government Solicitor before the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee estimates hearing in the week before last when for quite a period of time I asked questions about the litigation brought against the member for Fisher, Mr Peter Slipper, by Mr James Ashby, a person who alleges with particularity to have been sexually harassed by the member for Fisher.

I should say that I took the trouble of writing to Mr Govey, the CEO of the Australian Government Solicitor, the week before estimates to indicate to him that I wanted officers of the AGS who had knowledge of the conduct of the litigation on behalf of the Commonwealth to be present because, as you know Mr Deputy President, the Commonwealth was a party to the litigation until it settled on 27 September. And an extraordinary thing happened: officers of the Australian Government Solicitor were present in the committee room. In particular, the senior legal officer with the principal conduct of the case, a man called Mr Damien O'Donovan, was present. The CEO of the Australian Government Solicitor, Mr Ian Govey, was present and at the table but, deliberately and advertently, for a period of more than two hours, the secretary of the department, Mr Roger Wilkins—plainly acting on instructions from the minister, the Attorney-General, Ms Roxon—refused to allow Mr Damien O'Donovan to respond to questions from the opposition, and effectively refused to allow Mr Govey, who was actually at the table, to respond to questions from the opposition.

Senator Payne: It is.

Senator BRANDIS: This was extraordinary, and as a former chair of that committee, my distinguished friend Senator Payne points out to me, that is extraordinary in her experience too. Plainly, the government was seeking to cover up something of which it was deeply ashamed, as well it might have been.

We reached the absurd position where I asked a series of questions of Mr Roger Wilkins, the secretary of the department, who had no idea what the answers were—nor would he have had reason to, not being responsible for the conduct of this litigation—and he had to beckon Mr Damien O'Donovan to the table so that Mr Damien O'Donovan could whisper in his ear and he could then relate to the committee what Mr O'Donovan, sitting in the committee room himself, and with all the answers in his possession, could have told us directly. It was a solemn farce and a disgrace to the process.

I am convinced that Mr Damien O'Donovan would not have risen to the relatively high office he holds in the Australian Government Solicitor unless he was a very good lawyer. And he would not have been put in charge of this litigation unless he was a very good litigator. And yet this litigation on behalf of the Commonwealth was conducted bizarrely. The only explanation is that it was conducted under political instructions by the Attorney-General who, as the evidence came out, micromanaged that litigation. And that is a disgrace and a very, very poor reflection upon her.

It was also revealed during evidence that no fewer than 17 solicitors in the Australian Government Solicitor were engaged in the litigation, and it was said—

Senator Payne: 17!

Senator BRANDIS: Yes, 17, Senator Payne. It was said that only four of them were engaged full-time. A few days after the estimates hearing was completed, the committee received a clarifying letter from the Australian Government Solicitor to say that it was not actually 17, it was 21! Now, if there were any doubt that this case was conducted politically rather than appropriately according to appropriate model litigant guidelines, ask yourself this question, Mr Deputy President, which we, the opposition, have asked on notice: how many other sexual harassment suits has the Commonwealth responded to in the last several years? And in how many of those sexual harassment suits were 21 solicitors engaged, including four solicitors engaged so that was their principal work? This litigation was conducted politically by an Attorney-General who does not know how to behave properly. (Time expired)