As Attorneys General go, one would have to concede that George Brandis is more high profile than most but a quick review of his “achievements” so far shows a sorry lack of perspective for the highest lawmaker in the land and many inconsistencies.
After his relentless pursuit of Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, an unapologetic Brandis was forced to repay $1683.06 in taxpayer-funded entitlements he claimed after attending the wedding of a close friend, shock jock Michael Smith, despite saying he did nothing wrong.
In a letter to the Department of Finance, Senator Brandis said he considered the costs were within parliamentary entitlements, “since they were incurred in the course of attendance at a function primarily for work-related purposes”.
He added: “I remain of that view.”
We then had the debacle of the Brandis library. More than $15,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent on a second custom-built bookcase to house Attorney-General George Brandis’ extensive collection of books and law reports because the one we paid $7000 for in 2010 was too big to move to his new office.
Last year Senator Brandis defended spending $13,000 on reading materials including political thriller The Marmalade Files, Best Australian Political Cartoons and Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography Hitch-22.
As Minister for the Arts, Senator Brandis said he was also the “Minister for Books”.
One of Senator Brandis’ first actions was to have the ACT gay marriage laws repealed. This was only possible because Howard changed the marriage act to define it as between a “man and a woman”.
George also embarked on a “bonfire of regulations to cut red tape”. This included earth shattering reforms likes changing the word e-mail to email and facsimile to fax and trademark to trade mark as well as repealing laws such as the one which regulates how long a senior cadet drills for.
As Minister for the Arts, Brandis expressed outrage when the Biennale of Sydney chose to reject private sponsorship from Transfield when nine artists threatened to boycott the event in protest at the sponsor’s involvement in off-shore detention centres. He sent a strongly worded letter to the Australia Council which signalled a significant shake-up of arts funding to avoid political “blackballing”, in the wake of what he described as the “shameful” decision.
“You will readily understand,” writes the minister, “that taxpayers will say to themselves: ‘If the Sydney Biennale doesn’t need Transfield’s money, why should they be asking for ours?’ ”
He directed the Australia Council to develop a policy so that it would be a condition of the receipt of Australia Council funding that the arts organisation concerned not unreasonably refuse or unreasonably terminate private sponsorship. I wonder if that means they must accept sponsorship from tobacco companies.
Punishment was swift with the budget announcing
“Uncommitted funding to arts programs administered by the Attorney‑General’s Department will be reduced, a move that will directly affect the Australia Council and Screen Australia. Savings of A$87.1 million over four years will be achieved, with cuts to Screen Australia of A$25.1m over four years, and cuts to Australia Council of A$28.2m.
Funding for the Adelaide Festival Centre’s support for Asian cultural activities will also be ceased, with an estimated saving of A$1.8 million.”
One group who did well in the budget was the Australian Ballet School which immediately put the extra $1 million they were given towards the purchase of a $4.7 million Melbourne mansion. The fact that the wife of former Liberal Arts Minister Rod Kemp (now chairman of right-wing lobby group the Institute of Public Affairs) is on the Ballet School’s board had nothing to do with the funding announced in the budget, according to those involved.
Budget pain from Brandis was not confined to the Arts and started as soon as he got his hands on the reins.
Last year, as shadow Attorney General, George Brandis shared the stage with Mark Dreyfuss at a legal conference in Melbourne. They both agreed that improving access to justice by increasing funding for legal assistance was vital after the decimation of the Howard years.
Demand for free legal services far exceeds capacity due to chronic underfunding, a problem acknowledged by repeated government inquiries. The consequence is that many people can’t get the legal help they need for problems such as employment law, family violence, debt and tenancy issues.
Yet in his first months of office, even before the report of the Commission of Audit (let alone his government’s first budget), Brandis announced a massive cut to Commonwealth legal assistance funding. The $10m that the Gillard government had provided to bolster environment defenders’ offices, and that had already been contracted for, was stripped away through a claw-back provision that allows for funding contracts to be broken where there is a change of government policy, even though this government appears bereft of an environmental policy.
Brandis also stripped over $13m from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal assistance services, despite the unequivocal evidence of unmet legal need in Indigenous communities across Australia. Included in this was $3.6m withdrawn from Indigenous Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (IFVPLS), a particularly cruel decision given the horrific cycles of family violence gripping some Aboriginal communities.
An Aboriginal woman explained to the ABC the importance of having a culturally sensitive service.
“It meant that I didn’t need to have to explain my position as an Aboriginal woman and mother,” she said.
“It meant that I was working with Aboriginal workers as well, and it meant that when I have the service in court that they were able to speak as if I was the one that was speaking about my situation as an Aboriginal woman.”
The Queensland Indigenous Family Violence Legal Service told a recent inquiry that the vast majority of their work is in assistance for women who have had their children removed by child protection services. Such removals are causing immense pain in communities. This year, almost 14,000 Aboriginal children were in “out-of-home-care”, more than were removed at any time during the Stolen Generations. This is five times the numbers in care when the landmark Bringing Them Home report was delivered 1997, despite its warnings that the dynamics of the Stolen Generations remained present.
Australia wide, Aboriginal children are 31 times more likely to be incarcerated. But the Liberal government in Queensland is set to change legislation dealing with juvenile offenders, removing clauses citing detention as a “last resort”. Shane Duffy, the chairperson of the peak National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), has called for an urgent intervention from the UN to stop the terrible impact this will have on Aboriginal children.
But NATSILS too have just had their funding completely withdrawn, knee-capping such advocacy. Across Australia, Aboriginal legal services will have all their policy officer positions cut and are anticipating future funding agreements will prohibit them advocating publicly around the issues affecting their people.
An independent economic cost-benefit analysis commissioned by the National Association of Community Legal Centres highlights the economic case for properly funded legal services. The analysis showed that every dollar spent by government on community legal centres returned, on average, $18 in economic benefit to society.
At the same time, he found more than $2m to give to those who are opposing native title claims.
He also made the inexplicable decision to appoint Tim Wilson, a man with no qualifications or experience and who did not have to go through an application or interview process, as Human Rights Commissioner drawing a salary of $389,000 a year. To accommodate this act of nepotism, Brandis sacked Graeme Ennis, the Commissioner for the Disabled who has spent many years in tireless advocacy and who is responsible for many of the reforms that have allowed our disabled to live with dignity.
Wilson’s whole raison d’etre was to champion the repeal of the ‘Bolt laws’, which now renders him pointless as Tony has decided to drop the whole affair after enormous public and internal backlash.
Senator Brandis is stirring up hornets’ nests internationally too.
First there was his inept handling of the ASIO raids on East Timor’s Australian based lawyer. He proudly announced these raids by press release, only to discover that he had touched off an international incident that would embarrass Australian internationally and land us in the international court of justice – this time as a defendant accused of breaching due process and the national sovereignty of our poor neighbour.
Then there was the astonishing argument over whether East Jerusalem should be referred to as “Occupied” or “disputed”. This was sparked when Senator Lee Rhiannon asked why the Australian ambassador met with the Israeli housing minister in Occupied East Jerusalem. Brandis, rather than answering, refused to countenance the word “occupied”.
Rhiannon: “You do not use the term ‘occupied’ even though it is a United Nations term used widely by a number of international agencies like the European Union etc?”
Brandis: “It is used by a lot of people. It is used by a lot of communists too. Weren’t you a member of the Communist Party once?…….The point I made, is that the Australian government does not refer to East Jerusalem by the descriptor ‘occupied East Jerusalem’. We speak of East Jerusalem.”
The timing of this for the Peter Greste case was diabolical.
After his infamous speech in defence of bigots where Senator Brandis protected their right to be offensive, I was rather surprised to hear that George has accused Fairfax Media of publishing anti-Semitic coverage of the Middle East, and denounced a cartoon in The Sydney Morning Herald depicting a Jewish man with an exaggerated nose as comparable to propaganda from Nazi Germany.
Asked if the cartoon amounted to racial vilification and could encourage or incite others to hate Jews, Senator Brandis said: “It certainly constitutes a racial form of stereotyping. I think The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media in general ought to be very careful about the almost overtly anti-Semitic tone some of their commentary, including their editorial cartoon, have adopted.”
But stereotyping people of Aboriginal descent is just fine apparently, as are front pages depicting MPs as fascists.
And now we will spend $630 million on the new proposed anti-terrorism laws which will compel telcos to keep our long term metadata and will broaden powers to detain people with the onus on them to prove their innocence.
We can actually thank them, along with Brandis’ bigot speech and the 5000 responses it prompted, for the dropping of the Section 18c changes. The Prime Minister’s view was that the overwhelmingly negative feedback about the changes, combined with the proposed anti-terror laws, meant the government could no longer keep Muslims offside.
When Brandis should have been vocal, there was “craven silence from the Australian government about the grave constitutional crisis in Nauru, where the chief justice and resident magistrate have been illegally deposed by the government.”
Likewise, he has been silent on the assault on our civil liberties imposed by Queensland’s draconian anti-bikie laws.
Perhaps some of George’s problems stem from his statement “when I want to know what’s going on in politics, I turn to Fox News, not the ABC.”
Or perhaps he’s just not very bright.