Australians were shocked this week to discover Attorney-General George Brandis appearing to act as if he were above the law in joining the attack on Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The assault, led by a Prime Minister, claims Triggs is partisan and political in the timing of her report, ‘The Forgotten Children’ which deals with children of asylum seekers in detention. It is alleged Brandis offered an inducement to Triggs to resign.
Brandis has treated Professor Triggs, the rule of law and his own duty of care with contempt. It is his responsibility as Attorney-General to ensure that the President of the Human Rights Commission can do her job without fear or favour. Yet Brandis is leading an orchestrated attack on Triggs together with his punch-drunk Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and other members of the party; an assault supported in Murdoch papers with one reporter even dismissing Triggs for being a bad mother.
How could Brandis bring himself, his own office and the Senate into disrepute with his bully-boy behaviour; his playing to the gallery of misogynist galahs such as Senators Mitchell and McDonald? Above all, how and why have we let him?
Brandis’ recent attack on Professor Triggs in the Senate estimates committee hearing has prompted heated debate, if not outrage, about the conduct of an Attorney-General who has set such a new low for men in public office, let alone for the chief legal officer in the land. His disgraceful decorum has also focused discussion on his role. Brandis is throwing his weight around as if he were Chris Mitchell, editor of The Australian, the man who runs the country.
Brandis has redefined the role of Attorney General
George Brandis has redefined the role of Attorney-General to make himself one of the most powerful men in the land. His extraordinary powers include his right to know everything there is to know about anyone of us and to do what he likes with that information with complete impunity. Yet until now his public image has been misleadingly low-key, almost bumbling and benign. He even took pity on bigots, that’s how kind he was, it seemed.
Brandis, at first, seemed everyone’s favourite bachelor uncle. Sure he was a fuddy-duddy who could spoil any party game by insisting on explaining the rules but he was fun. His conservatism and pedantry were irritating but were merely harmless eccentricities we indulged such was his innocence in the ways of the world; his kindness at heart.
Granted, Uncle George was not up with everything. He could not explain metadata but this just showed what a good old-fashioned boy he was. Better that you ask someone else; someone not so adorably, wilfully, myopic; someone technologically literate.
What’s that? It’s his job to know? Wash your mouth out with soap! This is the Attorney General we are talking about. Next you’ll be expecting openness and accountability. Better not to expect. Expectations beget resentment. When Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus met Triggs, the pair were astonished to find the AG had sent his own observer. When they asked the man to leave he said he couldn’t because the AG had instructed him to be present.
Brandis also appeared bookish, an other-worldly figure, nineteenth century Radical throwback you could picture in an armchair of some elite gentleman’s club, cradling a vintage port, a blowhard, banging on about liberty, free trade and male-only membership. Fetchingly attractive as this caricature may be it would be too easy to descend into unproductive ridicule or lampoon, although, for some, the temptation is irresistible. At times, moreover, Brandis appeared to parody himself.
Labor poked fun at Brandis ...
Labor poked fun at Brandis’ joining the boys-only Savage Club of Melbourne; a club much like any other exclusive society which requires a little ritual chest-beating and guttural noises of its members. The club founded in 1894, ‘encourages a flowering of the bohemian tradition’ amongst the elite and doubtless accommodates many who yearn for the stability and certainty of a bye-gone gentleman’s era of empire, servants and horse-drawn carriages. Even bigotry is tolerable to those insulated and protected by their kindred, their wealth and their great privilege.
Bigotry has pigeonholed George Brandis in the public mind. Other views form part of the picture but Australians mainly see their Attorney-General as the man who says bigots have a right to be bigoted although most of us still don’t know what to make of this. In March last year, the Attorney-General turned his back, like his PM at question time, on his opponents, enlightenment and fairness; to take the nation with him back to a future of guttural noises.
Brandis would let popular commentary degenerate into a free-for-all; a deregulated, open slanging match. It fitted his vision of freedom. It is a peculiar freedom, nonetheless, based on a literal but mindless interpretation of liberty as freedom from any form of state control or interference, a nonsense that the Tea Party’s mad hatters claim makes perfect sense. Brandis hoisted the flag for his government’s radical, neo-liberal cause. He was serious.
“It is certainly the intention of the government to remove from the Racial Discrimination Act those provisions that enabled Andrew Bolt to be taken to the federal court merely because he expressed an opinion about a social or political matter,” Brandis said. “I will very soon be bringing forward an amendment to the RDA which will ensure that that can never happen in Australia again.”
The AG was referring to section 18C which makes it illegal to: “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” because of their race or ethnicity”. Bolt’s columns, personally attacked several Aborigines, disputing their claims to Aboriginality, arguing they did not deserve awards they had won.
Brandis was overruled ...
Brandis was overruled by Abbott’s captain’s call last August. 18C would stay. The PM said he wanted to keep all communities on Team Australia, implying that 18C of the RDA protected minorities, a position which contradicted Human Rights Commissioner, Brandis’ appointee, Tim Wilson, who argued 18C gave greater legal privileges to some on the basis of race and that this posed great risks to social harmony.
“There is nothing more dangerous to a multicultural Australia today than the idea that some people have legal privileges on the basis of their race which do not exist for other people.”
Nothing more dangerous? Wilson is unlikely to tip against his boss, yet let’s be clear about where the danger lies. OK, he does come from Queensland. And, yes, he is a senator. But do not be fooled by his presentation. George Brandis is a dangerous man. More than promoting intolerance and curbing multiculturalism, he has effectively curtailed our freedoms. Yet we readily gave him permission.
The National Security Amendment Bill (No.1) 2014 permits spies and ASIO and their subcontractors almost unlimited freedom to so whatever they fancy. Yet it was rubber-stamped by our parliament, making bipartisan support, a new term for almost total lack of scrutiny. Even the senate, entrusted to review new laws for us, gave up any pretence at having the necessary critical faculties and quickly got on board. Former footballer senator Glenn Lazarus’ comments make you wonder how many senators even read the bill:
“I love Australia,” Lazarus declared piously. “I love our freedom. I, along with all Australians, feel that our great country must be protected.” Speak for yourself Glenn. Just do us the favour of reading and referring to the legislation.
As Attorney-General, Brandis got us to surrender our rights by telling us we would be better protected against terrorists. The Prime Minister had the same old argument. You remember. We would be giving some rights up so that evil Death-cults could not harm us. After all, we’ve been doing it for years now. To most of us, the deal seemed, fair and reasonable. But only if you didn’t read it or have someone explain it carefully to you. And who’s got time for that? Besides, who ever really listens to the Prime Minister?
... officials can now act in total secrecy ...
Thanks largely to Brandis and his National Security Amendment Bill 2014, officials can now act in total secrecy; break the law with impunity; remain immune from prosecution and having to answer to any court. As Alison Bevege has written:
“They will decide what they do and to whom and when. They do not have to ask permission. They will choose when to ‘interfere in your life and when they won’t. They can dip into your most private communications and they don’t need a warrant to do so.”
In the context of the unprecedented powers he has conferred upon himself in his NSA, it is little wonder if Brandis has got carried away with his own omnipotence. The result, however, has been to degrade his office and diminish his own reputation. He has revealed an unparalleled oafish ignorance and a total lack of judgement in his attempts to destroy Gillian Triggs.
Brandis has demeaned the Human Rights Commission when it is his responsibility to protect it. And in the process of an unwarranted, sustained and orchestrated attack on a woman who has earned her reputation by defending fairness and advocating for the underprivileged, he has demeaned all women and set an appalling example of injustice.
Brian Burdekin, points out, Brandis has yet to demonstrate that he understands what the role of Australia’s Attorney-General entails. He must resign immediately but not before he has apologised to Triggs and to all Australians, especially women.
• Mike Moore, in Comments: By his words and actions, George Brandis has defined himself as a political grub. He distinguishes himself from his grubby boss only by the colours of his ties. And he, like his boss, will never apologise. He will lose his job soon after Abbott loses his. Mike Moore, Hervey Bay.