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Thursday, 10 November 2016
Page: 2495


Senator WATT (Queensland) (14:47): My question is to the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis. I refer to today's Legal Services Amendment (Repeal of Solicitor-General Opinions) Direction 2016, through which the Attorney-General has made a humiliating backdown and withdrawn his earlier attempt to constrain the Solicitor-General. Who did the Attorney-General consult in making this new direction?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:48): Mr Tom Howe, the Acting Solicitor-General. Thank you, Senator Watt, for raising the issue. When the former Solicitor-General, Mr Gleeson, resigned on 24 October it was very clear to me that a new Solicitor-General would need to be appointed. I decided then that when the new Solicitor-General was appointed, obviously and as a matter of courtesy to whoever that person may be, I would have a talk to them about the way in which they wished to be briefed. It seemed to me at the time that one of the things that we would discuss is the legal services direction, which, no doubt, the incoming Solicitor-General may have views on.

I sought the views of the Acting Solicitor-General, Mr Howe, last week, on 3 November. He agreed with me that it was appropriate that when the new Solicitor-General came into office, which will be very soon, he should begin, as it were, with a clean slate. I had another talk to Mr Howe yesterday afternoon, and that confirmed in my mind the course of action which I had been inclined to take since 24 October. Accordingly, this morning I rescinded the legal services direction.

I have said all along that I regard this as a matter of administrative housekeeping. I think it has been the greatest confected storm in a teacup that I have ever seen. It does not change the law, it does not change paragraph (b) of section 12 of the Law Officers Act and it does not change the guidance note under which the Australian Public Service and its agencies determine the method for briefing the Solicitor-General, but it seemed a matter of common sense, with a new Solicitor-General, to solicit his views. (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT: Senator Watt, a supplementary question?

Senator WATT (Queensland) (14:50): I refer to comments made by the Attorney-General's Queensland colleague the member for Bowman, Mr Laming:

I said it's no longer needed now because he's gone, and if it gets thrown out it doesn't matter — Justin Gleeson's gone.

Doesn't the repeal of the direction today prove that Mr Laming was right and this was all about targeting the former Solicitor-General?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:50): Senator Watt, I know that you and the Labor Party are very fond of conspiracy theories—particularly those of you in the Left faction of the Labor Party seem to live in a world of constant conspiracy theories. But I am afraid the prosaic truth is that when on 24 October 2016 I learnt of Mr Gleeson's resignation I immediately considered whether, when a new Solicitor-General is appointed, it was appropriate to have a discussion with him about the Legal Services Directions in order to solicit his views, just as I had solicited the views of the previous Solicitor-General.

I have been reflecting on that course of action since 24 October. I discussed it with Mr Howe, not once but twice. He thought it was a good idea and he has authorised me to say that the course of action has his approval. And I should say that expressions of interest for the new Solicitor-General close at 5 pm tomorrow. (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT: Senator Watt, a final supplementary question?

Senator WATT (Queensland) (14:51): Given the Attorney-General has changed the law of this country to get rid of a senior statutory officer holder who he disliked, been sanctioned by this Senate for previous attacks on senior statutory office holders and misled the Senate about the Man Monis legislation, why should the Senate have any confidence in his ability as the nation's first law officer?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:52): Each of those statements are untrue. Each of those statements are absolutely untrue, and you should not mislead the Senate. Senator Watt, you are a new senator and you have already developed an unattractive propensity to mislead the Senate.

Those who dragged Mr Justin Gleeson before a Senate committee were not the government—they were the opposition. Those who created an occasion where Mr Gleeson made some admissions which destroyed the government's capacity to trust him were not the government but the opposition. If Mr Gleeson was put in an untenable position—if, as he himself acknowledged, he was forced to resign because trust had disappeared—then that was not the doing of the government, it was the doing of Mr Mark Dreyfus and the opposition. (Time expired)