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George Brandis, the Rule of Law and Populism

Nothing stimulates frankness like an imminent departure from politics. From the deceptions, dissimulations and general obtuseness offered by the political craft, a person appointed to a diplomatic position can be reassured to lie in a different way. Mendacity is less taxing and always more civil, away from the dirt and dust of political tussling. Views can be expressed with more sophistication and, even occasionally, candour.

Senator George Brandis, Australia’s conservative Attorney-General, was one such creature. A political beast given to punching holes in the law, he has been given a chance to pursue the Sylvan fields in London as Australian High Commissioner. He will be suitable for this station, a period of easy living in London lubricated by the Australian tax payer. As an ideological hard knocker in the Liberal Party, he has earned his stripes.

His valedictory speech to fellow parliamentarians should have created more waves than it did. Australian journalists and commentators tend to nod off on such occasions. A man without glamour, a product of the law, will never stir the heart. But his words were worth noting on several levels.

Brandis has witnessed, during his tenure, a greater centralisation of security matters in the form of a Home Affairs ministry overseen by Peter Dutton, a ruffian immune to the finer points of jurisprudence. In his farewell speech, thinly veiled swipes were taken against various figures of his own side of politics, notably those to the Right. Interestingly enough, Brandis was leaving as a self-described moderate, a champion of some holy middle ground.

Brandis noted what should be a common place assumption: that the attorney-general’s duty is to defend the rule of law, even “from political colleagues who fail to understand it, or are impatient of the limitations it may impose on upon executive power”. The senator had not “disguised” his “concern at attacks upon the institutions of the law – the courts and those who practice them. To attack those institutions is to attack the rule of law itself.”

His own awkward positioning as defender of the law and doyen of propriety doesn’t survive closer scrutiny. He cites “several robust occasions” where he supposedly took issue with recalcitrant colleagues. One such occasion was the stance taken on stripping those convicted of terrorism charges of sole Australian citizenship. That decision would lie with the Immigration Minister, a certain Dutton.

Despite backing the authoritarian suggestion, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott met resistance from cabinet colleagues. Brandis is reputed to have said at one meeting concerning the draconian proposal that, as attorney-general, it was his “job to stand for the rule of law”. But in all fairness, he was hardly a voice in the wilderness, keeping company with a host of other colleagues from foreign affairs to communications who voiced similar concerns.

It was under Brandis that a security regime suspicious of journalists and loathing of whistleblowers took further root. Definitions on espionage were adjusted to supposedly keep pace with modern technology, and legislation effectively providing immunity for the commission of crimes by Australia’s intelligence services was passed despite Brandis expressly ruling out torture as a policy.

The National Security Amendment Act (No 1) 2014 jolted media professionals from their complacent slumber. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance duly issued a statement claiming that the legislation “overturns the public’s right to know. It persecutes and prosecutes whistleblowers and journalists who are dealing with whistleblowers. It imposes ludicrous penalties of up to 10 years jail on journalists. It imposes outrageous surveillance on journalists and the computer networks of their media employers”.

The words of MEAA federal secretary Christopher Warren furnish us a corrective to Brandis as defender and stalwart of rights. “At a time when the parliament should be defending and promoting freedoms in our society it has instead chosen to strip them away.” A figure suspicious of the activities of the Fourth Estate can hardly be counted as a friend of the rule of law.

For all his claimed loyalties to a profession he has supposedly cherished, to legal principles that he might have defended with zeal, Brandis’ achievements must be regarded as more modest. In certain instances, he did genuine harm to the patchwork of Australian liberties and protections, all vulnerable to the dictates of parliament.

Educating Prime Minister Abbott about such fanciful notions as the rule of law would have been challenging, but less acceptable is the normalised state of security Australia finds itself. Instead of halting it, the senator propelled it. Courting the reassurances of the police state, in other words, proved to be a recurring feature of the Brandis era, notably under Abbott and Turnbull. In some exceptional instances, it pays to keep the law away from lawyers.


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  1. Ricardo29

    Far too polite, I suspect you mean to say Brandis is/was a lying supporter of usurping the rule of law in his zeal to crush our basic freedoms, while trashing notions of the first law officer upholding the law and defending those whose job it is to maintain some of those basic freedoms. That he is, after a disastrous stint as AG, attempting to paint himself as some defender of the law from the worst depredations of his right wing nut.. colleagues. The London sinecure might suit him, but he will (like Joe Hockey) render our diplomatic presence there a joke.

  2. Kaye Lee

    His treatment of Gillian Triggs and Justin Gleeson, his spending millions on court cases to avoid revealing his diary and then ignoring court orders to do so, his appropriation of arts funding, his sneering arrogance in Senate estimate committees, his inability to stand up to those colleagues who have put themselves above the law, his lack of understanding about the implications of spying on all of the citizenry, the silly debate over 18C, and his godalmighty pedantry……

    It was also Brandis that approved raids to cover up our illegal bugging of parliamentary rooms in Timor l’Este for commercial gain approved by his predecessor in the London gig, Alexander Downer. One wonders if they spoke about it.

    George’s speech to Pauline was good, but belated and easy. George’s support for SSM likewise (fingers in ears about rumours). Other than that…..?

  3. Glenn Barry

    Kaye Lee, Great summary – for a lawyer and barrister who never actually practiced as a barrister he was an appalling practitioner of the law as our first law officer, a true disgrace

  4. Matters Not

    George (bookcase) Brandis’ contribution to political discourse will always be described as – too little and, most importantly, too late. A mere footnote re his political legacy. And he would agree with that. If he was being honest.

    But probably not. Few will mourn his political passing.

  5. paul walter

    And who is his replacement?

    The cold blooded individual responsible for extortion and thuggery involving Centrelink recipients.

    Back to Brandis, let us not forget the monstrous and corrupt industrial relations Star Chamber he concocted and stage managed.

  6. Andreas Bimba

    The Liberals and Nationals are such a cess pool that they can easily find someone even worse to replace their current puppets.

    The issue is why do so many vote for this rubbish, the New England by-election is a recent example, and who is really in the driving seat?

    Our democracy and economy switched from social democracy in the 1970’s to effective oligarchic control of both major party blocs operating as a good cop bad cop partnership introducing basically the same neoliberal agenda ever since.

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