Our bumble-footed Attorney-General, George Brandis, has finally got something right. The resignation of the Solicitor-General, Justin Gleeson, was the proper course of action for him to have taken.
Indeed, it was inevitable: when the first and second law officers of the nation are irrevocably divided, one of them must give way and if the first won’t, the second must.
Let me stress this has nothing to do with justice, or the merits of those concerned. By any measure, Gleeson is by far superior in legal skill and experience, in integrity, in gravitas, in simple decency. And the case he made before his sneering and ignorant accusers in the senate hearings was unanswerable. Brandis was, at best, mean and tricky, and his directive to Gleeson that he must come cap in hand to his minister before performing his statutory duty was unprecedented, intolerable and quite possibly illegal.
But that is not the point. Brandis may be a puffed-up, pompous, posturing buffoon – hell, he is definitely a puffed-up, pompous, posturing buffoon, and he has proved to be so many times in the past and will not doubt continue to do so in the future. But the hard fact is that he is a senator elected by the Australian people (or at least a chunk of the voters of Queensland) and he is a senior cabinet minister, having been chosen specifically for his current job by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
So if our quasi-Westminster system of government means anything, while he has the support of the parliament, Brandis cannot be overruled except by Turnbull’s fiat – and as we all know, that is not going to happen. The bureaucrats, even when they’re right, must give way to their political masters, even when they’re wrong.
However, Brandis may be, and should be, condemned and excoriated, and it is now likely that he will be humiliated as his reckless directive will be overturned by a majority of his fellow senators, to the relief of serious lawyers. It will not be a pretty sight; it is, as Turnbull notes with masterly understatement, regrettable.
But far more regrettable has been Brandis’s reckless grab for power and the damage he has caused to more than a century of parliamentary convention. For all ten officer bearers who have become Solicitor-General, in all governments from both sides of politics and frequently overlapping competing governments, it has been a given that the post is one of independence: that is its reason for being, to give frank, fearless and sometimes unwelcome advice to the Attorney-General and thence to the cabinet to ensure that they do not stuff things up any further than they need to.
Brandis has trashed this tradition and Turnbull seems to be saying that it doesn’t really matter; we can simply move on, the next solicitor-general will be just as brilliant and independent as his or her predecessors. He must be joking.
What worthwhile lawyer would now want to work side by side with Brandis? Any prospective applicants would be laughed out of their respective chambers. As of course Brandis will be if he ever attempts to return to honest work at the bar which is now unlikely.
Apparently, he is angling for a different kind of sinecure, perhaps the Alexander Downer’s job as High Commissioner in London. He would still be a national embarrassment, but at least there his ridiculous bombast and overwheening vanity could be dismissed as part of the job.
Mungo MacCallum is a former senior journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery.