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Thursday, 10 November 2016
Page: 2511

Senator WATT (Queensland) (15:45): Today about half an hour or 15 minutes before question time, the Attorney-General issued the repeal of the Legal Services Amendment (Solicitor-General Opinions) Direction 2016. To anyone who actually bothered to look at legislation matters today, they would not really have known what that was about. They would have been distracted by that legalese—that boring wording. What that repeal is all about is a cloak for one of the most humiliating backdowns this chamber has ever seen. It is a humiliating backdown by this Attorney-General, who is fast becoming a complete embarrassment to this government—to the point that anywhere you go in Canberra there is active discussion underway about a ministerial reshuffle and about this Attorney-General being moved on to make way for someone who is actually up to the job.

Let us just retrace the history of this matter. For months now the Attorney-General has defended an unprecedented action that he took in issuing a direction which constrained the independence of this nation's Solicitor-General—our foremost lawyer. It required the Solicitor-General to get the permission of the Attorney-General to provide legal advice to anyone else in the government and it required anyone else in the government to come and seek the Attorney-General's permission before they could seek a legal opinion from the Solicitor-General. That has never happened before.

An inquiry that was held into this revealed that no other Solicitor-General had ever been subject to a similar direction, and yet this Attorney-General took it upon himself to issue that direction and constrain the independence of the nation's first legal officer. I talked about the report of this committee the other day and pointed out that we may reach three conclusions. Firstly, that this direction was improper. Secondly, that despite the Attorney-General's claims to the contrary, he did not consult the Solicitor-General in the issuing of that original direction, and, despite the fact that he is actually required to do so by law, not one other attendee at the meeting that the Attorney-General held with the Solicitor-General in November last year, which is the meeting the Attorney-General relies on to say he consulted the Solicitor-General, backs up the Attorney-General's claim. He did not consult the Solicitor-General. And, thirdly, and even worse than that, that he has repeatedly misled the Senate about this consultation. The explanatory note which was issued with the original direction said that he had consulted the Solicitor-General on at least five occasions. He has told either this chamber or a committee hearing that he has consulted the Solicitor-General when all other evidence is to the contrary. He has repeatedly misled the Senate and, as we know, this Attorney-General has done that on other occasions as well.

The Prime Minister has previously said that he regards the misleading of parliament as a very serious matter and that if you mislead the parliament you have no choice but to resign. Even the Attorney-General admitted within our hearing that he agreed that if a minister misleads this chamber then they have no choice but to resign. Well, I am afraid for this Attorney-General his time is up. It is time to go. It is time to resign.

As I said, just before question time today we saw the original direction constraining the Solicitor-General withdrawn by the Attorney-General. Why did he do that? He knew that he was going to lose. He knew that he did not have the numbers to push this through, that everyone had finally caught him out, that everyone knew what he was up to and that everyone knew that he had been misleading the Senate when he claimed to have consulted the Solicitor-General. How humiliating to spend the last few months consistently arguing that he had consulted the Solicitor-General and consistently arguing that this direction was needed, only to withdraw it 15 minutes before question time on the day the game was up.

We must ask ourselves why this Attorney-General would do this. Obviously, on the one hand he was finally aware that he was going to lose and a motion was going to be passed today disallowing the direction. But I think the real reason why this direction was withdrawn was exposed by the Attorney-General's colleague the member for Bowman, Mr Andrew Laming, when he said on Brisbane radio recently of the direction:

… it's no longer needed now because he's gone—

'he' being the Solicitor-General—

and if it gets thrown out it doesn't matter — Justin Gleeson's gone.

That is what this was all about. This was about the Attorney-General not wanting to have a Solicitor-General who was independent of mind and would actually provide him with real legal advice rather than the advice he wanted.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that this Attorney-General is a failure. He has given rise to the term 'Brandis Fail'. We have had Brandis Fail I, when he misled the Senate over the Man Monis letters. We have had Brandis Fail II when he was censured for attacking Gillian Triggs, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission. Now we have had Brandis Fail III, a humiliating backdown where he has had to withdraw his own direction about the Solicitor-General. I have not even got to the dodgy appointments to the AAT. Surely it is three strikes and you are out. No wonder there is talk about a reshuffle. No wonder there is serious talk about replacing him in the Senate with the member for Surfers Paradise in the state parliament, John-Paul Langbroek. (Time expired)