Brandis and his "boutique controversies"
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Justinian in Attorney General, Federal election 2016, George Brandis, Mark Dreyfus, Mark Dreyfus QC

Following his debate with George Brandis on Monday evening, shadow AG Mark Dreyfus QC gives an assessment of his opponent and reviews the damage wrought by the current attorney general ... "Not fit for office"   

At the AG Debate: George Brandis doesn't look happy and has turned a funny colour

Conservative attorneys general sometimes think they should be basically passive: a steady set of hands overseeing the legal system, law enforcement and security. Senator Brandis endorsed this view during Monday's debate, claiming proudly several times that his years in office had been more or less unremarkable. 

Audio here 

Unfortunately, Senator Brandis has fallen short of even his own low standards: a man who aspired to mediocrity and failed. 

Senator Brandis has in fact been a conspicuous member of the Abbott-Turnbull Government - for all the wrong reasons. At the end of his first, and we should hope last, term as attorney general, it's worth remembering just what a trail of destruction he has left behind. 

The attorney general is meant to make sure all Australians have access to justice. While Senator Brandis has found $160 million dollars for the divisive marriage equality plebiscite dreamed-up by Tony Abbott and supported by Malcolm Turnbull, he has ripped money away from vital legal assistance services, including those serving Indigenous communities and women suffering from domestic violence.  

There's more in store - Senator Brandis will cut almost a third of all federal funding to Community Legal Centres after the election.  

During the pre-election debate this week, Senator Brandis would only acknowledge his tenure had been marked by "boutique controversies" discussed in "law school common rooms". If he went and talked to the people waiting in community legal centre waiting rooms, he may take a different view.

The attorney general is meant to oversee Australia's human rights framework, but Senator Brandis has spent much of his term doing his best to undermine it. 

He famously declared to the first Indigenous woman elected to federal Parliament that "people do have a right to be bigots". He spent his first year in office trying to tear down Australia's protections against hate speech and, while he was forced to back down, has never ruled out trying to do so again. 

Senator Brandis participated in disgraceful attacks on Professor Gillian Triggs, president of the independent Human Rights Commission, just for doing her duty, and even tried to bully her into resigning her post. That resulted in a successful censure motion in the Senate, declaring him unfit to hold the office of attorney general.

The AG is meant to safeguard the courts, the legal system and the rule of law. But on Senator Brandis' watch, the courts, particularly those dealing with the family law matters of ordinary Australians, are plagued by backlogs and bottlenecks. He has neglected communities around the country by refusing to fill vacancies in their local federal court registry. But then, he doesn't think the courts are for ordinary people - he's persisting with a plan to prevent Australians challenging developments which harm their local environment.

Now we've learned that Senator Brandis, the first law officer of the Commonwealth, has launched an unprecedented attack on the second law officer, solicitor general Justin Gleeson SC. He has reportedly tried to bring the solicitor general under his own exclusive control, a move some think illegal, and in the process may well have misled the parliament 

The attorney general is meant to promote transparency and open debate, but Senator Brandis has led the biggest attack on our FOI laws since their inception. He spent two years trying to abolish the independent FOI watchdog and in the interim stripped it of its staff and resources, leaving it unable to do its important work. Senator Brandis doesn't believe in open debate. He has sought to gag legal assistance services from speaking out in public debate and working on law reform proposals.

Australians who care about access to justice, good governance and the rule of law know the wrong that Senator Brandis has inflicted during his three years in office matters.

Senator Brandis is not fit for office. Only a Labor Government can undo the damage he has inflicted, restoring proper access to justice and protecting the integrity of our legal system. 

Mark Dreyfus is the Shadow Attorney General and the Shadow Minister for the Arts. He the Labor Party member for Isaacs in the House of Representatives 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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